Managing Our Emotions as We Come Out of the Pandemic

RANDI ROTWEIN-PIVNICK, M.A., LMFT, INC

Much has changed in our world since this time last year when we were first being hit with the reality of COVID-19 and the negative impact it would have on our lives. For the past year most of us have spent time isolated from our family and friends, fearful of exposing ourselves to the risks of getting COVID, and trying to figure out how to manage the ups and downs of our emotions as we adjusted to the ‘new normal’.

When we did venture outside of our homes, we were masked, kept our (social) distance from others, had hand sanitizer and hand wipes with us and were vigilant to wash our hands repeatedly when we arrived back home. Activities that came to us naturally and we gave little thought to, became carefully planned and for many, created a high level of anxiety. What was once normal and automatic, soon became ‘risky’ and at times, life threatening.

No wonder 2020 saw an increase in anxiety and depression in much of our population as well as a rise in anger amongst people as they experienced loss of business, employment, life savings, and loved ones as well as the freedom to come and go as they pleased. 2020 was a year full of fear, loss and restrictions, and the majority of the population is desperately wanting to get back to normal.

As many of us have spent the past year wondering “when do we get back to normal life?”, in some respects, the answer to that question is “never”. Most of us envisioned getting back to a “normal” life in 2021, but what is “normal” and what does “normal life” even look like anymore? While we are still wondering what happened to the life we knew and were accustomed to, we are now trying to adjust to stepping out into uncharted territory. Little by little many of us are being vaccinated and as a result, the world is beginning to ‘open up’ again, and we are gradually beginning to reintroduce some of the pre-COVID ‘normal life activities’.

Most likely we will continue to worry about infections and for now, at least, a large percentage of people will continue to be very cautious of germs and their personal space (ie: social distancing). What once seemed so unnatural to us (wearing masks, wiping things down, excessive use of hand sanitizer and hand washing, not touching another person), has now become the norm, and the thought of not doing these things can result in increased anxiety and discomfort for many people.

However, as more people begin to venture out into “unknown territory”, many will begin to let their guard down simply because they are tired of all the restrictions of the past year and are yearning to get back to ‘normal’ again. Unfortunately, as they do so, others will find themselves faced with increased levels of anxiety and depression as well as anger as a result of feeling threatened by other people’s ‘risky’ behaviors. People are anxious to resume a sense of normalcy and with that will come risk-taking behaviors that may, in fact see another increase in COVID.

Those that are more reserved and ever so slowly and carefully testing the waters will most likely experience an increase in anxiety as they are faced with interacting with those that can’t wait to regain their ‘freedom’ and decide to rip off their masks, gather in crowds and celebrate the ‘return to normalcy’.

Just as many experienced an increase in a range of (what felt like) uncontrollable emotions at the beginning of the pandemic and throughout the past year, so too, will many of us experience a similar range of emotions as we begin to ‘dip our toes’ into the ‘new normal’. The changes that transpired over the past year will have a ripple effect on the rest of our lives.

As you venture back out, I would suggest slowly ‘re-opening up’ your world so that you will not become overwhelmed with the emotions you experience and will be better able to manage them as they manifest. We typically experience anxiety when we feel we are not in control of a particular situation. Managing our anxiety as we begin to let our guard down and increase the risk of ‘exposure’ will be easier to handle if we gradually reintroduce the activities that have been ‘off limits’ for the past year.

You may also experience a range of other emotions as you realize that some of your friendships are no longer intact, businesses you frequented are gone or have drastically changed, people are distant or acting out in anger, and perhaps, things just seem very different than they did a year ago.

There are still a lot of unknowns and we are all stepping into unchartered territory. Remember that while you have little control over others, you are the boss of you and therefore can decide which activities you feel comfortable (safe) participating in and which ones you do not. Setting healthy boundaries for yourself and not placing yourself in situations that are uncomfortable/unsettling will lessen the intensity of the range of emotions you experience as you begin to ‘re-open up your world’.

Acknowledging your feelings and validating those feelings is of utmost importance to lessening any negative impact you may experience as you step outside of your comfort zone. Practicing the techniques of recognizing your feelings, exercising self-care and compassion for yourself and others, and reaching out when you need help will assist you in building resiliency. Most likely, these are the same techniques we have been practicing for the past year and the behaviors that helped us survive 2020 emotionally and physically. Remember to be patient, be kind, and be safe.