By Kristen Kenney, MSW, LICSW
In early 2020, we began seeing otherworldly news reports showing emergency workers dressed in white inflated suits, expandable tubes trailing down their backs, furrowed brows visible through clear face masks. We soon l earned the name of the threat, COVID-19, and began to experience measures enacted to protect us.
Being a resilient and adaptive species, we quickly l earned to wash our hands correctly, socially distance and mask up. We established pods and limited our interaction with others. Most of us didn’t regularly venture far from home. Kitchens morphed i nto offices, school rooms and 24 hours-a-day diners. In-person social connections were scarce. We were confined to the space of our homes, with the same people…for months. Our old way of l ife seemed far, far away.
Time passed simultaneously quickly and extremely slowly but we are finally approaching the hour for us to re-enter society at large. In many cases, we have sent our children out to test the waters. First hybrid l earning and now, more and more frequently, full-time in person school attendance. For the most part, children, despite some trepidation, have returned home to share stories of positivity and “fun!”
Now it is time for the adults to return to their workplaces. What should we expect? What things have changed? What things haven’t? Like an astronaut walking on l and again, the re-entry may be uncomfortable and awkward. We may even experience some anxiety.
So how can we prepare ourselves?
● First, if you have concerns about safety, familiarize yourself with work protocols and expectations. If you have questions, try to dialogue with a manager, prior to your return.
● If your unease is more global, create a plan to deal with that. Prepare yourself with strategies to address anxiety if it arises. Meet with your therapist in advance of re-entry and have an appointment on the calendar for soon after your return.
● Feeling “out of practice” or “awkward” is common and okay. In fact, any emotion you are feeling is okay. Treat yourself, and others, with compassion.
● Practice self-care as you adjust to your new environment. Prioritize adequate sleep, healthy eating and exercise.
● Plan to deal with the unexpected and be ready to change course i f needed. If your apprehension does not dissipate, and becomes a “marked, or intense, fear or anxiety of social situations1 ” , you may be experiencing social anxiety and should seek the support of a professional therapist.
● Be aware of your own and of others’ boundaries. As much as we may be thrilled to see our work buddies, we all have various levels of comfort in re-connecting. Open communication will be helpful i n making sure everyone feels safe and respected.
1 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, American Psychiatric Association, April 2020, pg. 203.
● Before you take those first, tentative steps take a few deep breaths and mindfully ground yourself. Remind yourself of the many ways you’ve displayed resilience and strength.
Just as astronauts often have a post re-entry plan for mental health support, it is wise for all of us to prepare for our post-pandemic mental health. After all, we too have experienced isolation, separation from friends and family, and are now explorers entering a beautiful, new world.