Working as a therapist during the pandemic was fascinating. I received an up-close-and-personal look into the anxieties people experienced during stay-at-home orders, the ways that they coped (either healthily or unhealthily), and the thoughts that kept them up at night. Once restrictions started to loosen, so, too, would peoples' anxieties, I figured.
It turns out that post-pandemic life has brought a new host of challenges for many people in different ways, some of which have surprised and worried many of my patients. In today's post, I'll discuss what some of the most common challenges I've witnessed and how you can cope.
First Thing's First: What Difficulties are People Experiencing Post-Pandemic?
Peoples' responses to the world now can be categorized in the following ways:
The "I Never Realized I Was This Introverted" Person
This is the person who is wondering if the hustle-and-bustle of pre-pandemic life was highly unhealthy and overrated. Not realizing just how full their social calendar was, they might be surprised about how much quiet time they need. Now they're asking themselves if they'll ever feel "normal" again—if they'll ever be as social as they used to be, if they'll ever have the desire to go out for overpriced dinners with friends again, or if they'll ever be able to reconnect with their "true" work ethic.
2. The "I Never Knew I Was So Social" Person
On the other end of the spectrum, we have individuals who were proudly introverted before the pandemic. These are the people who didn't find the transition to staying at home particularly jarring since they were already used to deciphering which excuse was most believable when it came to avoiding social gatherings. Now, however, this is the person who's realizing that some connection feels awfully different than no connection and that perhaps the lone wolf lifestyle leaves much to desire. Their current anxieties revolve around how they're going to make more friends, find a significant other, and avoid future loneliness at all costs.
3. The "Life Should Never Be 'Normal' Again" Person
This is the individual who was surprised at the amount of anxiety they experienced at the height of COVID. They may have found themselves spending countless hours reading news articles about the virus, ordering groceries online, and intensely washing produce when it arrived. Now they continue to live in a state of fear and are baffled when others' habits become less rigid. Presently, they experience frustration and anger at why people aren't continuing to take cautionary measures and feel like they'll probably wear a mask for the rest of their lives.
4. The 'Business as Usual' Person
This is the individual who learned that pre-pandemic life actually had a lot of perks. Their kids going to school gave them a much-needed break for uninterrupted "adult time." Commuting to work allowed them to unplug after a long day, going to the gym allowed them to be more intentional about their workouts, and seeing friends regularly meant that they didn't have to be with their partner 24/7. This is the person who likely resisted every COVID-related measure, who scoffed whenever they sanitized their hands, and who simply cannot wait for life to "go back to the way it was." They are yearning for the day where we no longer have to wear masks and didn't experience anxiety in the height of the pandemic so much as they did frustration and perpetual annoyance.
How to Cope
For the 'I Never Realized I Was This Introverted' Person...
If looking back on how you were before the pandemic causes you to gasp and wonder how you didn't have a nervous breakdown, it says a lot about how hard you were pushing yourself beforehand. If it took a pandemic to teach you that you need to slow down, there's an opportunity to keep learning how to do less.
As we enter a post-pandemic world, your task is to remember what self-care looks like. It's to schedule some weekends during the month were you don't see a single other human so that you have time to unwind and not be "on." It's to set time aside where you are intentional about not being productive and just doing things for the sake of relaxation or enjoyment. (If you need some help with this, check out this other blog post: "Read This If You Always Feel Guilty for Not Being Productive Enough.")
If you're experiencing concerns about if you'll "ever go back to how you used to be," you may be asking the wrong question. Perhaps you aren't meant to go back to the "person you once were" since that lifestyle was unsustainable. And what's so wrong with wanting to have more down time anyway? What's so bad about not wanting to see 2038530825 people and spend $439058023985 on social stuff each month? There is nothing abnormal whatsoever about enjoying rest, so don't be so hard on yourself.
PRACTICAL TIP: draw a horizontal line on a piece of paper. On one end, write all of the things you did before the pandemic. Write what you liked about that, what you didn't, what you felt like on the average day pre-pandemic, and what the pros and cons were. On the other side of the line, do the same exercise in relation to what life was like for you during the peak of the pandemic. Now make an 'X' in the middle of the line. This represents the best of both worlds. What do you want to maintain from both sides? What does a happy medium look like in this context? For example, perhaps you valued the ways that you could manage your time well before the pandemic but now realized that doing more self-care activities is important for your wellbeing.
2. For the 'I Never Knew I Was So Social' Person...
One of our primal needs as human beings is to experience connection and belonging. In fact, loneliness has been proven to be more detrimental to our health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure. It's not only okay to want to feel connected to others, but it's how your brain is wired.
Sometimes it can feel very anxiety-provoking or "wrong" to do something that feels unnatural. When anxiety strikes, it easy to say, "This is a sign that I should stop doing this." But if we used feelings as our metric for everything, we might never go to work, exercise, or apologize for that thing that hurt someone's feelings even though it wasn't our intention. Allowing our feelings to always run the show is a losing game. It can be more productive to lead with our values and focus on the long-term benefits rather than the short-term gains. Know that experiencing anxiety simply comes part and parcel with leaving your comfort zone.
If the pandemic taught you that you were more social than you thought, honour that! Try to reconnect with old friends, initiate hangouts more, join a new activity, volunteer, or be more intentional about staying in touch with people who are in your life.
3. For the "Life Should Never Be 'Normal' Again" Person...
If there's one thing that almost every anxiety therapist can agree on, it's that avoidance does not alleviate anxiety in the long run.
Avoiding situations means that our brains never learn new information. If we tell ourselves, "I can't leave the house because I'll get COVID," we'll never gain the opportunity to test this theory. We'll become stuck in narratives that are inaccurate or unhelpful and our worlds will become smaller and smaller.
When it comes to ridding ourselves of anxiety, it's important to begin with the end in mind. It is always easier to avoid situations that make us anxious because it provides such a strong feeling of relief in the moment. Overcoming anxiety requires a complete mindset shift where you say, "I'm taking this action because Future Me will benefit from it. I hate this in the moment and I know it will support my health in the long run." (Easier said than done, I know!)
Your task is to push yourself outside of your comfort zone in small yet significant ways. You might start by seeing going for a socially-distanced walk with a friend. Then you may meet up with two friends on a patio. Figure out what small steps you can take over a period of time so that you're able to experience just enough anxiety that you can tolerate it without being overwhelmed. (NOTE: It's best to do this while working with a therapist to ensure that you have the appropriate tools to ground yourself should you ever become particularly overwhelmed.)
4. For the "Business as Usual" Person...
The pandemic likely clarified what some of your own needs are, including your need for independence, freedom, and choice. These are all very understandable. Simultaneously, it's important to figure out how you can honour these needs while also being mindful of others. I always remind people that strong boundaries are NOT about doing whatever you want whenever you want; they're about being clear about what you need and keeping others in mind.
There's an opportunity for radical acceptance here, which is about stopping the fight with reality and putting our energy towards things that we can control. In this context, it means acknowledging that things are different now whether we like it or not. The pandemic truly changed the world, and whether or not we think it was for better or worse is irrelevant.
Your task now is to prioritize which of your needs are the most important and decipher how you can honour them. Though we all wish this weren't true, we can't have it our way all the time, so there's an opportunity to learn flexibility here. Perhaps this was the gift that pandemic gave to you.
The Bottom Line
We have all been through so much since the pandemic struck in 2020. We have had to adjust to working from home, following one-way arrows in grocery stores, teaching kids how to raise their hand in Zoom, engage in difficult and awkward conversations with friends and family, and become far too accustomed with which hand sanitizers we prefer.
If you're experiencing complicated emotions as restrictions loosen, you are not alone. The human race is highly adaptable—so adaptable, in fact, that many of us have become too acclimatized to privately watching Netflix for five hours straight and wearing nothing but sweatpants all week. (Sorry, define jeans; I'm unfamiliar with this term.)
The fact of the matter is that all of us are now being asked to turn our attention inward and ask what type of lifestyle works best fo us. And if you ask me, that's a beautiful thing. As the expression goes, "You don't know what you don't know." Sometimes you don't know just how much you value being with others until you've been forced to be alone with your thoughts for months on end. We might not realize just how much down time we need when we're never given a moment to quietly check in with ourselves.
The good news is that many of us are experiencing post-traumatic growth, defined as the occurrence of positive change after a highly stressful or challenging situation. According to a study from the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 77% of the 893 people they surveyed said that they experienced moderate to high post-traumatic growth after COVID. Specifically, they reported having a greater appreciation for the value of their life, friends, and family, a shift in priorities about what's important to them, and great feelings of self-reliance.
Use this moment as an opportunity to get to know yourself better, to reconnect with your values, and to confidently honour them.
How did the pandemic change you for the better? Let me know in the comments below!
If you or someone you know is struggling to navigate life post-pandemic, contact email@example.com to book an appointment for individual, couples, or family psychotherapy or nutritional counselling We are offering person therapy at this time at our Markham or Vaughan office or virtual therapy via Zoom.