Vaccination numbers are up, COVID infection rates are down, and more and more areas of the country are resuming operations. After more than a year in quarantine, life is finally starting to feel, dare we say it, normal –– well, except for that big, flashing-light anxiety you may get when you think about dropping your kids off for a playdate or eating at your favorite restaurant.
It’s easy to recognize that the waning pandemic is objectively good – but it’s also easy to feel hesitation or even full-blown panic about re-entering “normal” activities.
“People are resilient and adapted very quickly to a more insulated life that was deemed necessary to protect themselves and others from bodily threat,” says Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “What makes the transition back to normal life challenging is that there is no fire or immediate threat motivating folks to return to pre-pandemic levels of functioning.”
Your level of discomfort with re-entry might be even worse as a parent. For one thing, says Saba Lurie, a marriage and family therapist and owner of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles, younger kids can’t get vaccines yet –– so it can be tough to balance vigilance with their health alongside your family’s re-entry, especially if your child is at risk.
Not only does the world seem like a threat; you might also be out of practice when it comes to daily activities like making small talk with strangers or coordinating details of weekend getaways or kids’ sports schedules. According to Romanoff, that’s also totally normal — people tend to expect the worst, underestimating their ability to adapt to changes.
As overwhelming as your anxiety feels, it doesn’t have to rule your life. Here’s how to tame that tension as you cautiously inch toward post-pandemic life as a family.
1. Make time to process
If you find yourself feeling wound up when you think about leaving the house, take a deep breath — you may just need some time to recalibrate. You’ve experienced lots of complicated emotions over the past year and a half, and Romanoff says it’s crucial to process them before diving back into the real world, whether you journal about your feelings, talk to a friend, or see a therapist.
Those intensely anxious moments can be discouraging, but they’re also reminders that your mind and body need some extra help calming down, so take them as a cue to remind yourself the world is safer now than it was.
2. Take little steps
When you feel like you’re spiraling into worst-case scenarios, focusing on what you can control can give you the reins and, as a result, calm you down. One way to do that? “Instead of jumping full-force into situations that’ll upset you, start small,” says Grace Dowd, a therapist based in Austin, TX. “Sign your kids up for one activity this summer instead of the usual four, and take a trip to a nearby cabin for a weekend instead of venturing too far from home for a week.”
3. Consider what you value
Anxiety often looks like avoiding activities you once enjoyed. To get out of that head space, Lurie suggests reflecting on your values. What activities, events, or people made your life joyful and meaningful before the pandemic? “For myself personally, as far as getting through re-entry anxiety, I think about how much I value relationships and being in community,” she says. “When I connect with that, it becomes more possible to challenge myself to take small, manageable steps.”
4. Plan ahead
Planning is another way to gain some control when you’re on edge. If you want to go out and engage in activities, for example, bring snacks and drinks for your family so you don’t have to go to stores or restaurants unnecessarily. Lurie also suggests planning a script for COVID-19 related safety measures, like if a child is standing near unmasked adults. That way, you don’t have to come up with something on the fly and you’ll feel more confident in the process.
5. Know how to calm down
Even if you take all the steps necessary to stay safe, you still might experience some anxiety –– and that’s okay. The key is to understand how to calm yourself down when those stress-filled moments pop up. Psychotherapist Julia Gold of Hopeful Bluebird Consulting says it’s likely that your brain is trying to protect you by reacting to potential risks, which can result in a very physical response as adrenaline floods your body.
When that happens, she suggests using mindfulness, or focusing on your five senses, as a tool. Try focusing on colors in a painting, listening to calming sounds like ocean waves, smelling scents like lavender, touching something warm and textured, or tasting flavors you enjoy. All these things, she says, can bring you back to the present moment, which is hopefully a lot safer than all the stressful scenarios in your head. You may be surprised –– even simply keeping mindfulness as a potential resource for moments of overwhelm can help curb your anxiety.
6. Go easy on yourself
Chances are, you feel the weight of all your family has missed out on during the pandemic, and a sense that you have to make up for lost time. But pressuring yourself into resuming “normal life” too soon might have the opposite effect. Lurie suggests a different approach to protect your mental health and increase the likelihood of a successful re-entry. “Even though social invitations may be coming in, we can remind yourselves that we don’t have to say yes to everything,” she says. “Allowing ourselves to adjust at our own pace can be helpful –– and it may also be comforting to remember that other parents are going through the same struggles as well.”