Re-entry: Navigating Our Comfort Zone

As the case numbers of COVID-19 continue to decrease as vaccinations increase, the world is opening back up. On May 13, 2021 the CDC updated the public health recommendations by stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask or social distance in public. For many, this announcement came as a huge relief- a sign that the pandemic is weakening and that more signs of normalcy are returning. For others, doing more “normal” things like putting on real pants, for example, now feels abnormal.  After spending the last 14 months living in fear of getting sick, it’s hard for some to flip the switch and trust that the world is safe.

Our world is going through the process of re-entry, and not unlike the space shuttle’s return to the earth’s atmosphere, there’s bound to be some friction. As an object falls through the air, it rubs against air particles, creating friction that causes air resistance and intense heat1. The difference with re-entry following a pandemic is that the friction that we experience could be a result of our differing levels of comfort rubbing up against other. The COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a collective trauma-the psychological upheaval that is shared by a group of people who all experience an event2.  However, we don’t all respond to the trauma in the same way. Our individual differences cause some people to develop PTSD symptoms in response to an unexpected event while others do not. Furthermore, some individuals experienced greater degrees of grief and loss than others. Therefore, recovering from a collective trauma calls for mutual respect.

Judgment will only intensify the friction and prolong healing. It is worth noting that those who struggled with social anxiety prior to the pandemic may be having an even harder time now. Sheltering in place and avoiding large crowds may have brought a sense of relief to such individuals at the time, however, avoidance only reinforces anxiety. After a prolonged period of avoiding social gatherings, returning to them may be more difficult.

If you’re having difficulty deciding how to navigate finding your comfort level amidst the loosening of restrictions, here are some tips for a smoother process3. And in light of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, these practices can support your mental health in general.

  1. Take time to tune into yourself and determine your comfort level. Notice if your body feels tense when you think about participating in certain activities. Consider your family members, their health risk factors and vaccination status. Think through whether you will engage differently with those who have been vaccinated and those who have not. When will you wear a mask, even if it is not required?
  2. Connect with your personal values, and how they influence your willingness to take risks. Values are your compass for life, guiding you in the direction of what is important. When we’re doing what’s important and meaningful to us, we feel our best. For example, if you highly value family and celebration, you may decide to attend a celebration of life service or a wedding even if you’re not quite ready to attend another large gathering such as a sporting event.
  3. Go at your own pace. If you’re hesitant to re-engage, start small and focus on the most important opportunities for connection. Again, notice your values and determine what activities are important for you to be engaged in face to face. For example, you might not be ready for dinner out with a large group of people, but maybe you’re willing to meet one or two close friends and dine outdoors.
  4. Get your information from credible sources. If you are active on social media, then you’ve experienced the bombardment of articles shared and the mixed comments as one tries to find support for what they believe to be true. Furthermore, studies show that social media use has been linked to depression, anxiety and loneliness- counterproductive to pandemic recovery. When making decisions about how to safely engage in public, turn to reliable sources based on science such as the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).
  5. Discuss comfort level with those whom you plan to spend time. Once you’ve determined your comfort level in terms of what you’re willing to do and whether or not you will wear a mask, check in with those whom you plan to see and find out their standards. Make a plan so that you’re on the same page in terms of wearing a mask or not, allowing some distance, staying outside, etc.
  6. Make time to relax. This pandemic has been stressful for all of us, and at times, mentally exhausting as we try to make decisions. Don’t take on too much at once as more opportunities become available. Take some time to decompress and not feel pressured to make decisions.
  7. Challenge unhelpful thoughts. Pause and notice the thoughts that are influencing any anxiety that you may have. Perhaps your thoughts of “what if” are not based on credible information or are not likely to happen. Consider alternative ways of thinking and reframe your thoughts in ways that lead to more internal peace.
  8. Talk through your feelings with someone. When you’re feeling anxious or lonely, connection is very healing. If you’re having trouble making decisions about re-entry, talk through your thoughts and feelings with a trusted person.
  9. Plan for social events ahead of time. It can feel good to start planning events again and having things to look forward to. In the planning, consider the safety and comfort factors discussed here so that you and others can know what to expect.
  10. Focus on the present moment. Anxiety is based in the future, worrying about “what if.” When you sense yourself starting to go there, come back to now. Take a nice deep breath and take a moment to observe what you’re experiencing right now and try to find some gratitude.

In closing, accept that re-entry might not be a smooth process, and it may even be a little disorienting as we return to a world that isn’t the same as it was 18 months ago. None of us are escaping this pandemic completely unscathed, and we have been forced to grow and change in new ways. As we come back together, what we need most from each other is respect, kindness and patience. Those three ingredients will be our parachute, slowing the pull of gravity as we find our place in the world again.




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