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The transition out of COVID may be stressful, too: Tips on easing back into society

We might experience stress and anxiety as society gradually opens back up and we reemerge from our bubbles. VCU psychology professor Michael Southam-Gerow says there are ways to cope.

Illustration of  one person in social bubble, surrounded by a crowd Michael Southam-Gerow in the Department of Psychology at VCU, says it’s perfectly normal to experience stress as society opens back up, and he offers a few strategies anyone can use to help manage it. (Getty Images)

By Brian McNeill

As more people become vaccinated and COVID-19 cases decline, the U.S. is inching back toward something resembling normalcy. For many, that reopening will certainly be welcomed but also lead to a great deal of stress and anxiety.

Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University, says it’s perfectly normal to experience stress as society opens back up, and he offers a few strategies anyone can use to help manage it.    

Michael Sutham-GerowSince last spring, people have been on high alert basically all the time because we’ve been in this deadly pandemic and now we’re moving toward something that might somewhat resemble the way things were pre-pandemic. What does that shift look like, mentally? Do you expect it to be difficult for people?

Transitions are always hard for humans because of unpredictability and uncontrollability. Humans don’t like unpredictability or uncontrollability. We like to maintain homeostasis and be in balance so we can make plans and be relaxed. Part of what’s happened is we’ve been doing the pandemic for 15 months and we’re used to this life. It’s not great. We don’t like it and we would like to be out of it, but we are used to it, so it feels like a new homeostasis.

As a result, the transition away from a more restricted environment to a less restricted environment is going to be stressful, even though it’s going to [come with] all these positive things, like seeing people and being near them and actually being able to touch them and being able to sit down at a place and not feel like you’re breaking a rule. We long for those situations but they will cause some stress. People are going to vary in terms of how much stress, but many people are going to feel uncomfortable.

For example, think about [less restrictive rules about] proximity to other people. That’s going to feel weird at first because we’re used to having a six-feet-in-every-direction bubble around ourselves. Even now when you’re out walking, people give you distance. When you’re standing in line, people give you distance. We never did that before; you would get right up next to someone, even if you didn’t know them, while standing in line to pick up takeout or trying to get a bagel or whatever. So people are going to get stressed about that. They’re going to feel uncomfortable in a place where there’s a lot of people. We were at an arts and crafts festival this weekend and there were a lot of people there. And it was a little overwhelming.

It’s going to be stressful for a lot of reasons. It’s also important to remember that some transition stress is going to be related to losses that occurred [during the pandemic]. Many people have suffered losses, some related to and some unrelated to COVID, and they haven’t been able to see people. Some of the stress is going to be because of the delayed grief we’re going to have when we start to see or be with people. People are going to be pretty emotional when they see someone they might not have seen [during the pandemic]. Some people haven’t seen their parents for a year. There’s going to be all kinds of emotions that people are going to be experiencing.

Are there strategies you would recommend people could try to navigate the stress and anxiety of this transition?

When COVID started, there was this unpredictability to it. Now at least we have a little more control and predictability, and that’s going to be helpful.

One of the ways we deal with anxiety is using what’s called a gradual exposure approach, where you start with small steps and work your way up to bigger ones. Think about it like a swimming pool and a person a little bit nervous to go into the pool. You’re not going to just pick them up and throw them into the deep end. You’re going to have them start in the shallow end, and they can put their foot in, and go in up to their ankles and work their way in. Next thing you know, you’re up to your shins, and then you’re up to you your knees. In that way, as a person who’s reentering the world post-COVID — or whatever this new transitional time is going to be, and it’ll probably be a transitional time for another year — you can do it gradually.

Another [strategy] is to pair up with someone to have some social support in doing whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re going out to be out in public in a larger group for the first time, for example, do that with someone else, where you can talk with someone who has a similar level of comfort in those kinds of situations. You can compare notes.

Other normal coping strategies are also good — relaxation, taking deep breaths, and planning ahead. Remembering to do all of that.

Just be aware that everyone is going to feel different about [reopening]. Some people are just ready to go back to normal. Some states even have just said, you know what, we’re going to pretend like the pandemic is not even here anymore. And I think you have to be aware that there’s going to be people all across the spectrum. Once you get back out there, there’s going to be people who are still wearing masks for lots of reasons. And then there’s some people who won’t wear masks, and they’re either going to make a big fuss about it when asked to, or they’re just not going to do it. So just be ready for that kind of stress.

You mentioned that people may experience delayed grief, as people suffered losses during the pandemic and couldn’t gather together safely. Are there ways to cope with that delayed grief?

When you’re talking about grief, if you’ve experienced a loss, being sure to mark that in some way, even if it’s delayed, is better because there’s something [necessary] about closure. Whatever your faith or whatever your family prefers in terms of how you would do a memorial ceremony — a funeral, a wake, sitting shiva — you want to try to do that if you can, and you want to try to do that with family so that people have an opportunity to think about that person who was lost, or the people that were lost.

There’s something about community that gets lost in this experience when we’re not able to be together in the same place [for] these major events that happen in our lives — these touchstone events, like grief events but also happy ones like weddings, graduations. It’s important that we get back to doing them. There’s something healing in these community experiences and you can’t get that on Zoom. It’s close, it’s good, but it’s not the same.

I often like reminding people that humans are animals and we’ve chosen to be social animals. There are a lot of animals that just pair up to have offspring, but then don’t stay together. They just go off and be by themselves. Humans are not that kind of an animal. We live in family units and we gather in bigger communities. That’s part of our DNA; it’s built into us. And so it’s important that we get back to gathering. It will be important to take time once we are able to touch those cultural touchstones, even though delayed. We can go back and do them now, in community.

Do you have advice for parents? I imagine it’s going to be tough for children, especially young kids, to transition back to normalcy after this year of lockdowns and quarantine.

For some children, being away from school has been torture because they’re either extroverted kids or they really respond well to the adult relationships that they build outside of their family, or they respond well to learning in an environment where it’s more dynamic. Those kids are going to be excited to go back.

For parents, there’s going to be the anxiety of: Well, they don’t have vaccines for young kids yet and I’m nervous about the spread of the virus, but I’m also eager [for children to go back to in-person school] for a variety of reasons and to have the kid have these experiences that they would have at school.

Other kids are going to be afraid, and it’s a pretty big segment of the population. It’s probably one in five, at least, who are going to be not thrilled about going to school. They don’t like school for a variety of reasons: they’re socially anxious, maybe they were bullied or targeted at school — and boy, the bullying really goes down when you’re not at school — or maybe it’s that they struggle in school. As a result, school is more of a punishing environment than it is an interesting learning environment. For parents of those kids, the advice I would give is: Even though it’s going to be hard for them, you want them to go back because of social interactions [you only get from being in-person].

One of the things that’s going to happen is we’re going to have to learn how to interact with each other again, socially. Because we’re used to Zoom, where we can turn our cameras off, we can perfect the image that we portray — we can hide stuff. But there’s so much that happens non-verbally in an interpersonal interaction that’s in-person. We’re going to have to get used to it again.

The other thing about Zoom is Zoom has a very linear environment for communication, where one person’s talking and then the next person. It’s very hard in Zoom for there to be multiple people talking at the same time, which is [only really] good for communicating very straightforward things. Let’s say you’re in a classroom with 20 kids. There might be four different conversations going on. And all of those conversations are potentially important for the child’s learning and for their social development, their emotional development.

All of this is to say it’s really important to get kids back in there, just like it’s important for us to go back into our work environments. I would encourage parents to gradually get their kids back into school and do everything they can to make that a good experience for them, so that they feel better about going back, even if they’re nervous. Because the benefits of all of those informal and formal social interactions, they’re really going to pay dividends down the road.

We’ve lost something in this year, especially for young kids in terms of social development and learning, because they haven’t had the opportunities to have both really positive social experiences, but also stressful ones where they build up some strength and resilience from the challenges that happen in social environments.

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