The vaccine was supposed to mean the U.S. had left the worst depths of the COVID-19 pandemic behind, but for many of us, it hardly feels like we’re out of the woods.
Besides the growing threat of the highly contagious Delta variant and the corresponding return of indoor mask mandates, there’s the slow-burning social, emotional, and psychological fallout from the past 15 months to deal with. Which means that while returning to things like parties, air travel, and the rest of life outside our lockdown bubbles can be a joyous experience, it can also be overwhelming.
“Anecdotally, I think people are really worn down,” says Anna Sale, host and co-founder of WNYC’s Death, Sex & Money podcast, and the author of the book Let’s Talk About Hard Things. “The idea of restarting, reemerging—there’s a general sense of anticipation and pressure to get back out there, and of running into limits of your energy level, and also of your interest level.”
For many, the whiplash of full re-openings this past summer may have added an extra layer of internal conflict. “I think a lot of people feel almost gaslit, because we’re just moving forward and acting like it didn’t happen,” says Amanda White, LPC and founder and clinical director of Therapy for Women in Philadelphia. “And a lot of things have changed.”
Whether you’re grappling with grief, shifting relationships, or the difficulty of finding a new equilibrium after an extended period of fear, isolation, and lockdowns, here is how to approach the process without adding to your current stress levels.
Take stock of your habits—and start slow
From work to exercise to socializing, nearly everyone’s routines turned upside down over the past year, and the process of reestablishing a “new normal” may feel like starting entirely from scratch. Rather than taking an aggressive all or nothing approach, experts advise taking it slow.
“I think small, steady goals are really underrated,” says White. “My recommendation is to practice doing a couple things that you used to like to do with an open mind, instead of packing every night of your weekend. Experimenting and trying things while also holding space for your emotions is going to help you navigate that process, so we don’t burn ourselves out.”
White adds, “I’ve seen people throwing themselves into doing absolutely everything, and I don’t recommend that. I think we don’t have the same tolerance that we used to, and that’s something that will need to be built back up again.”
In many ways, this is an opportune moment to take stock of which parts of your pre-pandemic life you’d like to reintegrate, and which ones you’d like to reassess.
“With COVID and lockdowns, our environment changed so our habits changed, and now going back, people will tend to rejuvenate the habits they had, both good and bad,” says BJ Fogg, Stanford behavior scientist and author of Tiny Habits. “Sit back and list the habits you once had that you’re missing, and decide which ones you’d like to rekindle. Start with maybe three of them, and design them back into your new routine.”
Fogg suggests making any habit as easy as possible, whether that’s working out for 10 minutes instead of an hour or experimenting with a few new versions of your desired routine before settling on the one you like the most and will be most inclined to stick with.
Conversely, this moment can serve as an opportunity to permanently break out of old patterns.
“Maybe now you’re going back to work and are invited to the cocktail hour, and don’t want to fall back into it,” says Fogg. “Have a game plan for that scenario, and say something true, like ‘during the pandemic I’ve changed how I’m doing things, I could come but I’m not going to drink, or I’d love to hang out with you but not in this kind of setting.’”
Fogg adds, “Try it and don’t expect yourself to be perfect. The point is that it may feel a little scary and weird because you’ve never been here before, but now is a wonderful time to take control of your habits.”
Work with your body, not against it
Even if you emerged from the pandemic with your health intact, your body may not feel or work exactly the same way it did two years ago, and for many people, navigating these changes has become fraught.
“There’s a lot of apprehension about the world opening back up,” says Chrissy King, a fitness and strength coach and creator of the Body Liberation Project. “People always feel hypersensitive about their bodies in the summer, and reemerging and seeing people you haven’t seen in a long time or pulling out summer clothes that don’t fit anymore—all the apprehensions people have are exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Rather than throw yourself into an extreme new diet or exercise regimen, experts say, focus on ways to help your body feel its best after a prolonged period of stress.
“I think the key is to say ‘I’m going to wake up and listen to what my body needs today,’” says King. “You can have a plan, but also allow yourself to wake up every day and listen to yourself. If your body is asking for rest, allow that flexibility to lean into what actually feels good each day.”
And rather than doing battle with a pair of too-tight shorts you expect to fit back into, King suggests buying new clothes that fit your current body, and reframing the cultural assumption that bodies never change or fluctuate.
“Bodies change, and our relationship with our body changes on a day to day basis,” says King. “I’m always focusing on how can I show compassion in this moment and speak to myself the way I would my best friend.”
Talk to your people
If you came out of lockdown with the distinct sense that many of your closest relationships aren’t exactly where you left them, you’re far from alone. To get back on the same page with the people you care about, compassionate and direct communication are key.
“Communicate that you have good intentions and want to preserve the relationship,” says Ann Friedman, co-hosts of the Call Your Girlfriend podcast and co-author of Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close with friend and collaborator Aminatou Sow. “And lead with openness and transparency, even if you can’t fully name the feeling. It’s about taking the emotional risk to let this person you care about know what’s really going on with you.”
That may look like opening a conversation about issues that became contentious between the two of you during the pandemic (for instance, drastically different approaches to safety), checking in on a friend who might be struggling, or openly sharing about your own struggles.
“I try to lead with whatever’s going on with me and where I’m feeling unsteady, and it’s a signal of the kind of conversation I’m willing to have—we don’t just need to compare how we’re thriving,” Sale says. “Talking about that will also give you permission, if for instance, you flake on responding to a text, to come back and say, ‘I’m sorry, I still don’t know how to do this!’”
If you’re unsure of how to open a conversation with a friend or loved one who you sense may be struggling, once again, it helps to start small. “I often say something like ‘I’ve been thinking about you, how’s it going,’ or ‘you’ve been on my mind,’” says Sale. “If I have some indication they’ve been under stress, I might say ‘I’ve been thinking about the last time we talked and you mentioned this thing, how’s that going?’ You’re indicating that you really do care and were listening the last time they talked without saying ‘I’m noticing that you seem like you’re not handling things well.’ No one wants to hear that in those words.”
Focusing on smaller topics rather than global catchups can also help open the door to more useful conversations.
“There’s value in not expecting both of you to do ‘last season on’ and recap everything that’s happened in the past 15 months,” says Friedman. “Start where you are now and be open with each other. Specific questions like how their afternoon is, what they’re watching right now, what their kid is doing this summer. Keeping it grounded and continuing to ask questions from there will usually reveal quite a bit about how the last 15 months were for you.”
Give yourself space to grieve—and rest
During a time when it’s all too easy to feel external pressure to snap back to “normal,” the most consistent thing experts recommend: give yourself and others time and empathy to be wherever you’re at right now.
“There has been so much grief over the last year and a half,” says White. “Either the kind of grief we think about in the traditional sense, of losing loved ones, or grief for other things we’ve lost, whether it’s a high school graduation or a birthday you can’t go back and celebrate in the same way. The loss of jobs, the loss of friendships, even the loss of who we were before the pandemic.”
Missing out on the social gatherings and rituals that typically help us cope with loss has made grappling with these feelings all the more difficult.
“Being with people is how we grieve, a lot of times, and that hasn’t really been able to happen,” says White. “There’s a lot of pressure to have an amazing summer and get back to absolutely everything, but it’s also OK to be sad right now, and not totally ready to do everything again.”
Talking to loved ones and spending time journaling can help you begin to process these more difficult feelings, says White. “Anything you can do to kind of slow down and get in touch with your emotions is going to help.”
If you have the means, this may also be a good time to consider seeking help from a professional. “I believe lots of us can benefit from therapy, and you don’t need a diagnosis to benefit from it,” says White. “As a general rule of thumb, if you’re trying to do things and not able to do them, that’s a really good place to start with a therapist. They’ll help you understand why you’re having trouble, and to find smaller actions to help you move forward.”
As much as nudging yourself to start engaging in the outside world will be an ongoing part of the reopening process, so too will taking pauses, checking in with ourselves, and making room for rest.
“I really endorse figuring out how you can take time away from work when you need it,” Sale says. “And also remembering that if an outlay of energy is going to diminish long term stress or headaches, that has a benefit. Things like reminding myself that it’s healthy for me to leave the house and see people, which feels like such an immense outlay of energy but will have the long term benefit of making me feel less isolated.”