You’ve been waiting… and awaiting … and waiting for this amazing, magical day when you could return to “ regular life. ”
For many people in the U.S., it feels like that dim light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is becoming brighter. My 12- and 14-year-old daughters have their first shot, with the second one soon to follow. I was euphoric when the children received their vaccinations, choking up under my mask in the relief that my family was unlikely to get sick or pass the coronavirus on to others more vulnerable than we are. Finally our family could begin returning to so-called normal life.
However, what should those of us lucky enough to be vaccinated return to? I didn’t exactly feel euphoric each day in my normal life pre-COVID-19. How should you choose what to rebuild, what to leave behind and what new paths to try for your first time? Clinical psychological science provides some helpful hints for how to chart your course from pandemic life.
1. Set realistic expectations
You are not as likely to be disappointed should you set reasonable expectations.
For instance, you’ll likely feel some stress as you attempt to figure out what’s OK to do and what’s risky. Even as the risk level has diminished in many places, there’s still uncertainty and unpredictability tied to the present coronavirus risks, and it’s natural to feel anxious or ambivalent when letting go of an established habit, such as wearing masks. So, be ready for some anxiety and recognize it doesn’t mean something is wrong – it’s a natural response to a very unnatural situation.
It’s also probable that many social interactions will feel a little awkward at first. Most Americans are from practice interacting, and repeated practice is what helps us feel comfortable.
Even if your social skills were at their peak, the current moment serves up a lot to navigate interpersonally. Chances are, you wont always agree with the folks in your own life on where to draw the lines about whats safe and whats not. There will be some complicated July Fourth parties to navigate given many households have some members vaccinated and some not. That will be frustrating after waiting so long to finally get together.
And you won’t automatically have warm, fuzzy feelings about all of your colleagues, family, friends and acquaintances. Many of those little annoyances that cropped up in your interactions before you ever heard of COVID-19 will still be there.
So, expect some awkwardness, frustration and annoyance – everyone ’s creating new patterns and adapting to changed relationships. This should all get easier with time and practice, but having realistic expectations can make the transition smoother.
2. Live your values
To help plan which actions and relationships to put time into, think about your priorities.
Dwelling in ways which are consistent with your values can promote well-being and reduce anxiety and depression. Many therapeutic exercises are designed to help reduce the discrepancy between your stated values and the choices you make day to day.
Imagine you’re asked to carve a pie to illustrate your different functions and how important each is to how you feel about yourself and the values you prioritize. You might value your roles as a mother, a partner and a buddy most highly, assigning them the biggest pieces of your pie.
Now, what if you’re asked to split that pie in a way that reflects how you actually allocate your time and energy, or the way you actually tend to evaluate yourself. Is the time you spend with friends considerably lower than its value to you? Is the propensity to judge yourself based on inflexible work demands much higher ?
Naturally, time is not the only meaningful metric, and all of us have periods when particular elements of our lives need to dominate – think about life as a parent of a newborn, or a student during final exams. But this process of considering your values and seeking to align what you value and how you live can help guide your choices in this complex time.
3. Keep track
Clinical psychologists advocate engaging in activities that feel rewarding somehow to stave off negative moods. Doing things that are pleasurable, offering a sense of achievement or help you meet your goals can all feel rewarding, so this isn’t just about having fun.
For many people, some balance of fun, productive, social, relaxing and active activities in life is vital to feeling like your distinct requirements are being met. So, try keeping track of your activities and mood for a week. See, when you feel more or less happy and when you are feeling like youre meets your goals, and adjust accordingly. It will take some trial and error to obtain the balance of activities which provides that sense of reward.
4. Is this a time of preservation or growth ?
There’s fascinating research showing that the perception of time may influence your goals and motivation. If you feel time is waning – as often occurs for older adults or those experiencing a severe illness – you’re very likely to seek deeper connections using a smaller number of people. Alternatively, those who feel time is grand and open-ended tend to look for new experiences and relationships.
As restrictions loosen, are you desperate to see a close friend in the town you grew up in? Or more excited to travel to an exotic place and make new friends? There isn’t a right answer, but this research can help you think about your current priorities and plan that next reunion or trip accordingly.
5. Recognize your privilege and pay it forward
If you are vaccinated and healthy and can return to more normal activities, then you’re in a fortunate group following a year of such catastrophic losses. As you plan how to use this time, consider the research showing that your emotional health improves when you do things to benefit others.
Being intentional about helping others is a win-win. Many people and communities are in need at this time, so consider how you can contribute – be it time, money, resources, abilities or a listening ear. Asking what your community needs to recover and thrive and how you can help address those needs, in addition to considering what you and your loved ones need, can boost everyone’s well-being.
As the return to so-called normal life becomes more of a reality, don’t idealize post-pandemic life or you are bound to be disappointed. Instead, be grateful and intentional about what you decide to do with this gift of a reboot. With a little thought, you can do better than “normal. ”