Experts Offer Tips for Returning to 'Normal' Post-COVID

Returning to “normal” after a global pandemic is a process. These expert tips will help you over the hurdles.

I've always enjoyed countdowns, whether they're to Christmas, New Year's, or my birthday (which, as a Leo, I also consider a national holiday). Countdowns signify that something big is coming—a new adventure or a fresh start. But this past year they were daunting and undependable, thanks to the environment of uncertainty and fear created by COVID-19. The impending return-to-normal countdown has felt equally unsure. As the situation has evolved, I've swayed between feeling joyful about reentry and unsettled.

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If you can relate, know that in late February nearly 50 percent of Americans reported feeling anxious about resuming in-person interactions, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). And that anxiety doesn't just—poof!—go away once the world reopens. This guide will provide you with the tools and techniques you need to work through lingering challenges—personally, professionally, and financially.

Acknowledge Your Fears

Reentry anxiety can be triggered by fear of germs or of social interaction. While it might feel more comfortable to avoid resuming regular activity, resist the urge. "Our data shows that one of the biggest contributors to the development of anxiety disorder is avoidance," says Kalina J. Michalska, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside.

If you're worried about a germy commute on public transportation, try shifting your travel time to avoid peak hours. If it's social interaction that's causing you to sweat, acknowledge it out loud to the friends you wish to see. "People like to take care of others, they like to feel useful," Michalska says. Opening up about your anxiety will take the pressure off a bit. "Then you don't have to perform," she says.

But keep in mind there's a difference between reentry anxiety and more severe fear-based conditions. Ask yourself this: "Is anxiety preventing me from doing the things I'd like to be doing?" If the answer is yes, then you could be experiencing agoraphobia, an anxiety disorder that involves fear and avoidance of certain places or situations. In this case, you may want to seek help from a therapist.

Rebuild Your Network

Research shows that social isolation can change the brain over time, resulting in a decline in cognitive function, according to Michalska. Our professional and personal networks shrank by close to 16 percent—or by more than 200 people each—during the pandemic, according to a recent study by Yale researchers. In other words, it's important to reconnect.

"But it's also an opportunity for us to shift our priorities," Michalska says. Maybe during the pandemic you realized that some people were more supportive than others. It'sOK to prioritize the relationships that felt most fruitful to you.

This is also a chance to reassess your network, especially in light of the past year's political turmoil regarding the attacks on the Asian community and the Black Lives Matter movement, Michalska says. Just think, "How homogeneous is my friend group?" Then use this period of rebuilding to solidify bonds with people whose perspectives you wouldn't have encountered otherwise. "Life doesn't present us with turning points very often. And this, I think, is one of them," Michalska says.

Stabilize Your Finances

Between job loss, loan deferments, expensive vacations rescheduled, and childcare on pause, your pandemic finances may have been all over the place—saving some months, in a deficit during others. Use this new period to map out a more stable financial plan. Set a budget and financial boundaries around how you want to connect with people, says Kimberly Hamilton, certified financial education instructor and founder of Beworth Finance. "You don't need to say yes to everything that involves spending money."

For assistance in staying on top of your finances, consider using apps such as Truebill, a subscription management and bill negotiating platform, and Mint, an easy-to-use budget tracker and planner, Hamilton says.

Find Healthy Ways to Support Your Body

If it's taking you a little longer to get back into your fitness routine (or maybe you're reassessing it altogether), don't sweat it. "A lot of us experienced a huge disruption to our daily lives during this pandemic," says Lindsay Kite, PhD, coauthor of More Than a Body. This disruption included changes to our routine, what we ate, and how much we moved.

What's important is to keep up the healthy habits you developed during the pandemic. If you don't have time for the hour-long leisurely walk anymore, consider walking to a farther train or bus stop in the morning, says Stephanie Mansour, CPT. Or if you loved riding your bike in the evenings, begin commuting to work once a week by bike.

And if you are going back to fitness classes but still feel self-conscious about your body, opt for a machine or position in the room that isn't right in front of the mirrors, as they can encourage a state of self-objectification, Kite says.

It can also be useful to repeat a mantra before workouts, such as "My body is an instrument, not an ornament." A phrase like this shifts your mindset from wanting to lose X number of pounds or get into a specific dress size (an ornamental perspective) to wanting to run five miles or walk up the subway stairs without becoming super winded (an instrumental perspective). The key is focusing on how you feel and what you want to do with your body rather than how the world experiences it, says Kite.

This article originally appeared in the October 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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