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Now that businesses are beginning to reopen after abrupt shutdowns prompted by COVID-19, it could be assumed that we as a society would be itching to get back to our regularly scheduled lives. But after months of coping with isolation and working from home, you might find yourself experiencing just the opposite. “Quarantine showed us just how overworked and non-stop our culture has really become,” explains Lauren Cook, PsyD. “When we had some extra time to simply be with our families, it reminded us of what really matters.” If you’re feeling anxious about returning to work and social events, know that you’re not alone, and definitely not crazy. Read on for the science behind what might be happening in your brain, and get some tips for making the transition easier on yourself.
How Our Brains Coped with the Shutdown
In the blink of an eye, it felt like everything was taken away, from social events to grabbing a latte at your favorite coffee shop. “People very much experienced the grief response—everything from shock and disbelief, to sadness and tearfulness,” says Cook. “While the shutdowns were necessary, losing control and a true sense of powerlessness is very challenging on the human psyche.” All of a sudden, we were asked to forgo our routines and transition to being home almost 100 percent of the time. This sense of losing control can have powerful ramifications on our mental health, according to a study published in the Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, citing that people who feel that they’re not in the proverbial driver’s seat are much more likely to experience panic attacks, compulsive behaviors, and social anxiety.
A Wide Range of Emotions
Depending on your personality, you likely experienced many colors on the emotional rainbow when it came to being isolated. And Cook confirms that there’s no one way to feel: “This is a good reminder that the same event can have very different impacts for different people. Some folks are flourishing because they have less activating triggers, especially those who are socially anxious, while others are depressed because they’re missing friends and social gatherings,” she says. “For many, though, stress is a real factor due to financial and physical health.” And missing your daily sweat sesh at the gym might have a bigger impact on emotional regulation than you think: A Lancet Psychiatry study found that Americans experience better mental health when they’re participating in activities such as team sports, aerobics, and going to the gym, hinting that the combination of social and physical activity might be the secret sauce for keeping mental health in check.
Why Are We Anxious to Return?
You put in a lot of work to make your new routine work for you. You set up a functional home office, scheduled Zoom calls with friends to stay connected, and are now the literal queen of the home workout. It’s normal to ask yourself if this is a better way to live. “We were able to shift perspective and re-evaluate our priorities,” says Cook. “So many of us struggle to say ‘no’ to unnecessary things,” and once the decision was made for us to take a break and we learned to lean into it, “We reaped the benefits of having time to re-center.” So the real question comes down to how we can go back to our outside-of-home lives, but bring the lessons we’ve learned with us in quarantine and avoid burnout.
How Can We Return and Protect Our Mental Health?
With so many conflicted feelings, it’s no surprise some of us are counting the days we’re back in the office, while others are dreading returning to the grind. So how can we get back at it while staying mindful of our energy? Cook has some ideas:
1. Build Awareness of Your Present State. “This means that every time we engage or choose not to, there’s intention behind it. Listen to your brain and body’s needs in the moment.”
2. Give Yourself Permission. “When you’re listening to your own needs and responding accordingly, sometimes this will mean leaning in, and other times it’ll mean stepping out. Both are okay—you have the permission to give yourself what you need.”
3. Create Boundaries. “Practice telling others ‘no’ sometimes. This can be difficult if you’re prone to feeling ‘selfish’ or ‘guilty,’ but think of it this way: When you show up and you don’t want to be there, are you even bringing the energy that you want? Or are you showing up and spreading toxicity? There are times when you need to step back to step in with the right mindset.”
4. Be a Model for Others. “When we learn to set boundaries, we’re showing others how we can take good care of ourselves, and it invites them to do the same.”