For months, public health experts have emphasized the importance of vaccination in getting back to a more normal way of life: The sooner more people are vaccinated, the sooner we’ll all be able to safely shed our masks, hug our friends and return to favorite places and events.
Yet, even when there appeared to be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel and life began a cautious return to normal, some people felt nervous about going back to the way things were before the pandemic.
Now, with the Delta variant surging through communities and COVID-19 cases continuing to climb — it’s no wonder people are stressed and anxious.
Cynthia Hovis, BJC Employee Assistance Program (BJC EAP) supervisor, offers some professional advice on how to cope with the stress and uncertainties amid our journey back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle:
1. There are many ups and downs as we try to get back to normal, with guidance frequently changing. How do we cope with the stress?
Change is almost always accompanied by stress. So is uncertainty. Just the fact that we are never going completely back to the way things were — but going forward to a new normal — is stressful. That’s because we don’t know exactly what the new normal looks like or what uncertainties await us. Once your safety bubble is cracked and you realize bad things can happen to you and your loved ones, it’s nearly impossible to rebuild the bubble. You realize the things you once passively thought only happen to other people can actually happen to you.
Traumatic experiences take away our illusion of invulnerability. As we adjust to the new normal, there is much we can feel relieved about, such as the high effectiveness of the vaccines, better treatments for Covid-19 illnesses, the reopening of businesses and the easing of social restrictions. To experience stress during this hopeful time is completely normal and expected. It’s OK if you’re not feeling pure joy and relief. We’ve been wounded and our recovery will take time.
2. In general, what can people do to cope with stress as we continue on this bumpy path toward a new normal?
Be kind. Be honest. Be open — with yourself and with others. Determine the boundaries you want to have in terms of work, family and other obligations. John Paruch, MD, a BJC Medical Group psychiatrist at Christian Hospital, said, “If you learned that you love more time at home, build that into your new normal.” Here are a few other thoughts to consider:
- Ask yourself what makes you happy. Determine the activities you want to bring back and which ones you don’t. Include new activities you want to try. Write them down and prioritize them. Discard any that decrease your well-being.
- If you have safety concerns over not wearing a mask, don’t abandon them. If wearing a mask makes you feel comfortable, continue wearing one.
- Acknowledge that the "new normal" we are returning to may not be so normal at all.
3. What do you say to people who have been affected by too much “alone time”?
Move back into social situations at your own pace. No need to rush them. No need to engage in risky behaviors to make up for time being alone. Just because things are reopening does not mean that you are obligated to participate. Pace yourself and respect the pace of others.
4. What advice do you give to people who are stressed out about having to return to the office?
If you’re feeling anxious or stressed out about returning to work in person, take time to think about which aspects of the return are worrying you. Is it something specific or a more general feeling? Is it something you can control? Can you talk to your supervisor or manager about your concern? For example, are you worried about adding that long stressful commute to work back into your daily life again? If so, try talking to your boss about arriving earlier or later in the day to avoid heavy traffic.
5. What do you say to someone who is stressed out over an unvaccinated family member or friend?
Focus on what you can control. Limit worry and stress where you can. You can choose to maintain a relationship with an unvaccinated family member or friend, but you can also choose to not let them spend time indoors with you and your family. Again, the focus here is to be kind, honest and open. Try to share your feelings and come up with a compromise for spending time together.
6. It’s been said that we’ve been living in a prolonged state of anxiety for the past year and a half. What long-term effects might the stress of the past have on us?
There are many negative physical and mental health conditions that are brought on or worsened by excessive and prolonged anxiety and stress. It is important to make sure we are cultivating healthy coping strategies that will help us not only get through today, but benefit our overall health and well-being long term. Counseling with a mental health professional can be a very effective way to develop the strategies we need.
7. Do you think it will take a long time for people’s attitudes and worries about COVID-19 to abate and return to normal? For example, fear of hugging and shaking people’s hands and being in close proximity to large crowds of strangers?
Have you ever heard a grandparent or great grandparent talk about the Great Depression? Did they mention saving for a "rainy day" or keeping money under the mattress instead of in a bank? Future generations may look at us and wonder why we keep extra toilet paper in the house, always carry hand sanitizer with us and keep our distance when standing in line. COVID-19 is engrained in our life experience. It has shaped us and will continue to be part of our life story of who we are, individually and globally.
8. What can be done for people who may not be stressed out but are just done with the pandemic, those worn out and frazzled by all the news, both fake and factual, back-and-forth restrictions, not knowing who to trust, etc.?
Isn’t this where all of us are at right now? Aren’t we all just tired of the stress and drama of the past year and a half? We’re exhausted and emotionally raw and vulnerable. What can we do about it? Take time to ask yourself, “How am I doing and what do I need?” Self-care is not a luxury, but a necessity. Then, ask the people you love, “How are you doing and what do you need?” We need to acknowledge that each of us experienced the pandemic in different ways and may be experiencing the reopening differently as well. Some of us may need hugs and lots of social activity. Others may require quiet time at home after work. Family members and friends need to talk about these things rather than assume everyone feels the same.
9. Do you think that despite the stress and worry, the pandemic also brought some needed perspective to many people? For example, some people awoke to what’s really important in their lives and are now heading in a more positive direction.
Absolutely. We learned a great deal about ourselves and our loved ones. We discovered new ways to connect with each other. We found out that we are a lot more resilient than we thought we were, particularly front-line health care providers who “dug deeper” time and time again to find an inner strength they never knew they had. Some of us started to exercise again, found joy in new recipes to cook or rediscovered a passion for reading a good book.
10. Who should I contact if I know of someone in need of a mental health professional?
If you think a friend or family member is experiencing severe stress, anxiety or depression, have them contact their doctor or primary care physician, who can refer them to a mental health professional. Insurance companies also maintain a list of mental health providers. Or, have them ask their employer if an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available as part of their benefits package. EAP services are typically free to employees.
For Missouri residents negatively impacted by the pandemic, BJC Behavioral Health provides free crisis counseling through the Missouri Department of Mental Health's "Show-Me Hope" program. Learn more here or call 314.747.7492.
Learn more about recognizing when a loved one might need more help.