As springtime arrives and vaccination efforts move forward, many of us are feeling cautiously hopeful that our lives will soon return to normal.
Yet after 12 straight months of unrelenting stress, what does “normal” actually mean?
Is it being able to gather in large groups without fear? To pop into our favorite shops and restaurants without masking up? To enjoy traveling without worrying that we’ll get sick — or unwittingly pass a deadly sickness on to someone else?
No matter how we define normal, what seems certain is that it will take a while for us to feel free and easy again. But there’s no need to add guilt to the mix. There’s actually a biological reason for our lingering fears and anxieties.
How fears hold onto us
The human mind is primed to remember fearful experiences, at least for a time. When we encounter a serious threat, our brains and bodies make note of it so we can protect ourselves in the future.
Yet there’s a dark side to this very human pattern. We may retain traces of fear and trauma long after the original causes are gone, which can make it difficult to recover from troubling life events.
At its simplest, this can mean something that brings the past into the present. For example, if we were scolded as children when we spoke out of turn, we may feel extremely guilty if we interrupt someone (and suffer a few moments of social anxiety as a result).
In other cases, our struggle to overcome past troubles is much more profound. Post-traumatic stress syndrome, or PTSD, is the most obvious example of this. And while only a few of us will face full-on PTSD symptoms in the wake of the pandemic, we may still struggle at first.
Letting go of anxiety, one step at a time
When the pandemic began, we had so much to learn (or unlearn). Suddenly, it became unhealthy to shake hands with someone we’d just met or give our neighbor a friendly hug. We felt compelled to zip through the grocery store, yet exercise patience when encountering a long line at the checkstand.
As the pandemic fades, we will need to consciously remind ourselves that it’s safe to do things that felt unsafe for an entire year. The first time we walk into a crowded restaurant, for example, we may need to counsel ourselves that it’s perfectly all right to sit down and relax.
Simple steps to reassure yourself (and others)
- Pay close attention to your feelings. Watch for flutters (or even waves) of fear that come over you. Is it because you’re doing something that you couldn’t have done safely during lockdown?
- When you feel triggered, take a few deep breaths. Slow, rhythmic breathing is wonderful first aid for anxious feelings. In fact, this technique works well for many people who live with chronic anxiety.
- Be patient with yourself. Realizing that your reactions are normal will release you from feelings of guilt, shame or embarrassment. Remind yourself that your anxieties will fade as you become accustomed to more freedom.
- Make it safe for others to share their experiences. Just as life during COVID-19 required us all to support each other, so will the next chapter of our lives. If you encourage your loved ones to tell you when they’re feeling fearful or awkward, they will benefit — and you will too.
- Continue with healthy practices you embraced in lockdown. If you’ve been meditating, journaling, taking naps or doing yoga to manage stress, keep it up! These habits will help you maintain a new level of well-being — which is a wonderful reward for having lived through this challenging time.
- Realize that no two people will emerge from this difficult time at the same pace. If you compare your own progress to how well (or poorly) others seem to be doing, you may feel even more anxious. Give yourself time and space to heal in your own way.
What if you can’t stop worrying?
If anxious feelings just won’t subside, remind yourself that you’re not alone. Emerging from long periods of stress can be tremendously tough — and the wisest, strongest response is to seek help.
I have years of experience helping people cope with anxiety, depression and other responses that often follow extreme stress. I am happy to meet with you in my Portland area offices, or through telehealth channels if that works better for you. Get in touch with me now to schedule your appointment.