When going back is hard...
Today marks the release of most formal restrictions related to the #COVIDPandemic, triggering the formal start of a return to a pattern of life that used to be normal.
And there will be many aspects of this season which will produce joy and celebration. But at the same time many people are finding this moment of ‘re-entry’ harder than they expected.
Find yourself strangely reticent to get back to normal life? Trying to work out why?
Here’s three questions we suggest you ask yourself:
(1) Am I exhausted?
Here’s a first simple reason many people are struggling - the relentless and unpredictable nature of pandemic life has left our minds exhausted. This makes it hard to face a new season. For some who have been working at home for many months, or on furlough for long periods, the return of the stimulation and demands of ‘face to face’ full time working life may feel overwhelming. Others who have been in work throughout - often in frontline roles - may feel there has been no let up at all throughout this period - and the idea of piling into the next phase just feels too much.
It’s hard to face a new challenge when you are exhausted. REcognise that doesn’t mean the next season isn’t likely to be a better one. Don’t misread your mind’s lack of enthusiasm for a sign there are good things coming. Think practical: what do you need to do this summer to restore you mind, body and soul? Book some time out - it may be some annual leave or holiday away from your usual spaces and places, or several days out, or weekends getting away. Try to put down good boundaries in those times so you don’t get disturbed by the things that are usually fighting for your attention - turn off your phone and any work email and silence those WhatsApp notifications. Give your brain a break - and see how it changes the way you feel.
(2) Am I anxious?
Anxiety is a huge challenge of this moment - and lots of it is with good reason and some rationality. The most obvious trigger of genuine fear for many people is that they or someone they love might catch COVID - especially after months of living by rules which trained us to fear and avoid that possibility at all costs where possible.
Asking yourself whether you are anxious may feel like a daft suggestion - I mean surely it would be obvious? But after a period of sustained tension and anxiety, actually many of us have become habituated to a high level of everyday anxiety which might make it very hard to make positive changes and step back into life. Remember anxiety can also look like irritability or grumpiness, general tension or even cause real and debilitating symptoms like pain, muscle tension or worsening some pre-existing conditions. Pausing to recognise how we are feeling is an important first step to think about how much anxiety might be influencing what we’re thinking, feeling or doing.
In this season of learning to live with COVID, we are having to somehow adjust to a reality where there will not be a point where the risk from COVID becomes zero, or the virus is ‘defeated’. Here the narratives comparing pandemic to fighting a war fall down. There will be no celebration moment when fighting this virus is ‘all over’. This means we all need to make decisions about how we want to live in this world we now find ourselves in. And whatever you decide this is likely to mean facing and fighting some degree of anxiety. In fact - for many people the recent debates about returning to normal and the uncertainty and conflict over some things which will no longer be rules set by the government have meant this season has triggered more anxiety than they’ve experienced for a long time.
Whatever decisions we make therefore, in this season we are all going to need to manage some anxiety. In fact there could well be quite a lot of anxiety for some people. Anxiety is your mind’s smoke alarm, designed to warn you something MAY be risky or important. Even without having to understand just how much potentially alarming levels of viral cases actually represent a serious risk to you, ANY change in this moment will be anxiety provoking. Having lived for so long by so many rules and linking those so strongly to ‘keeping safe’ your anxiety smoke alarm will be doing overtime in a season where all those things change, all at once. It is entirely normal to find that an overwhelming thought. Just like a smoke alarm sometimes our anxiety system is over-sensitive, and needs time to settle and stop going off unnecessarily.
Our minds need time to learn and adjust to this new stage in pandemic life. As your mind gets more used to doing things again, anxiety will drop. In the meantime remember anxiety doesn’t mean what you are doing is too risky, a bad idea, or a mistake. Keep early steps small and take it steady - no need to rush back to the busiest scariest places first. Then when you challenge yourself to return to something you haven’t done for a long time think about how you will manage the inevitable anxiety - taking deep breaths, distracting yourself, having someone with you for reassurance etc.
Of course anxiety makes making good decisions about what to do or not do, or how to manage tricky moments really hard. If an anxiety flare, or your baseline level of anxiety and stress is too strong it can block out your ability to think clearly at all, making you freeze. But it is important we do return to the aspects of normal life that we can at some point. There are significant physical and mental health impacts of not returning which are too easily lost in the smokescreen of Covid. So instead of being overwhelmed by what it feels like you can’t possible risk, think about what you CAN do. Get some good advice from someone you trust - the GP or consultant who looks after you for example, or someone who can help you think this through clearly, and make some good plans about where you do need to reintroduce something - and how and when is the best time to do this. Be creative and try not to be black and white about it - just because there are some things that definitely still feel too risky doesn’t mean that you cannot change anything.
Try to find time to think about decisions you need to make in a moment you feel calm, safe and not under any particular pressure. If you can, get someone to help you - to be with you (outdoors if that feels safer, or on the end of the phone), to discuss and question to help you think things through thoroughly. Putting things on paper also helps keep track of your thoughts and stop anxiety from spiralling. You could brainstorm what are you most anxious of, then in each case try to write down the evidence for/supporting and against/challenging that fear. This may require some research for you, but writing down the evidence will help you feel confident you have done it thoroughly. Or, there may be key decisions you need to make, where writing down the different options, and then again one at a time adding the pros and cons of each, may help you come to a decision.
(3) Am I holding back?
The third reason some of us are finding it hard to return to our previous lives is, quite simply, because we are not ready. This shows itself in holding back - a strange reticence to return, finding excuses not to do things but feeling oddly relieved when it turns out you can’t - the mix of feelings that mingles a yearning for that elusive old normal with a relief when you can remain where you are.
Pandemic life has challenged and changed so many things that we previous built our lives on - those foundational non negotiable of life - things about how we understood our safety, security, identity and how the world worked. We’ve had long seasons of not doing things we had probably never even thought twice about doing - and that, for some, has produced a debt of processing as our minds ask - what does this mean for the future? How do I want to live life now? Do I really WANT to go back to these things?
Maybe there are aspects of your ‘old life’ that this experience has led you to ponder. Is it time for a rethink? There may be boundaries or patterns of life you want to maintain now that you didn’t before. This may even require a conversation with a boss or line manager, a change to your work or life pattern or working out how to add new things to your rhythm to make life healthier or just fuller and more fun. Some people have made dramatic changes to life as a result of the unusual clarity of the pandemic. Try not to jump into these though. Remember there may be other reasons for your unsettledness and gradually stepping back in with some thought about how to do that may be all you need.
Remember too the challenges of stress and overwhelm - we’ve spent over a year in pandemic life and for some that has been incredibly different, meaning your mind got used to a LOT less stimulation. And it’s a weird thing - actually that isn’t good for us and most people who have had that experience will recognise the low mood, slot focus and dropped motivation created by that monotony. But it doesn’t stop the return to the previous buzz of life being a comparatively stressful trigger. This is a big change - and change always demands more from your mind. So particularly if your fatigue level is high, take it slow. And don’t misread the spikes of anxiety that can result in when you even think about an aspect of life you need to return to for a sign those things are now impossible for you or a bad idea. Remember: expect some anxiety but try not to be panicked by it, especially in low or tiredness peak moments. Do what you can to protect yourself from unnecessary sources of added stress - conflict online or on social media, the barrage of negativity and argument in the news, local gossip or scare stories … keep clear boundaries on what you need to be aware of, and let the rest go.
And of course for some people going back may trigger extra emotion - because there are some things we cannot retrieve. Moments lost, time gone by, people or places no longer with us or still out of reach. Go easy on yourself if you know this is part of why you are finding this season of return hard.
If the unsettledness or struggle returns, you may benefit from making some time and space to process properly what you have journeyed through in this last year+ and to work out what that means. This could be time with one or two trusted friends to chat and pray - or time and headspace on your own to walk, think, pray or journal. But don’t neglect the potential gold of therapeutic space and a counsellor or coach who could help you clarify and understand your thinking and release the emotional load of what you have been through - particularly if what you have experienced in pandemic has been traumatic or emotionally very difficult.
Be intentionally empathetic.
Whatever you are feeling, in this season it is SO important to remember that your experience could well be totally different from those of people around you, people you love, people you work or do life with. Don’t make assumptions, or react hastily (especially if something has irritated you). Be intentionally empathetic, asking yourself, what is this person feeling? What lies behind what they are saying or doing? Do I understand how things feel for them?
Let’s respect everyone’s right to make their own decisions in what is a complex time of transition, but also not neglect to support one another in the best way we can when we need a little help to rediscover the things most precious to us in life.