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Wellness

Feeling Anxious About the Return to Normalcy? You’re Not Alone.

local mental health experts offer seven tips for staying mentally healthy in a ‘new normal’ after COVID-19

Rebecca Mennecke |

DON'T PANIC. Local mental health experts offer a few tips on emotionally coping with the return to
DON'T PANIC. Local mental health experts offer a few tips on emotionally coping with the return to a pre-pandemic "normal." (Photo via Unsplash)

1. Stay in your comfort zone, and branch out at your own pace. 

If you're not comfortable doing something, don't do it. Take baby steps to reacquaint yourself with what life looked like – and felt like - before. 

The No. 1 tip that local mental health experts have to offer is: Do what you’re most comfortable with, and take baby steps to get back to normal – whatever “normal” means nowadays. 

“We thought it was difficult to transition to a socially distanced world, but we did it,” said Dr. Alison Jones, psychiatrist at Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire. “It will take time to transition back to a ‘new normal,’ and that is OK.” 

Your comfort zone may look different than others’, and there may be some pandemic practices that you continue to use and others don’t – and that’s totally OK! “Everyone doesn’t have to feel comfortable going ‘maskless’ right now,” Dr. Jones said. 

It will take time to transition to a 'new normal,' and that is OK. 

DR. Alison Jones

Psychiatrist at Marshfield Clinic in Eau Claire

Reintegrating into the events and public gatherings realm doesn’t have to mean attending large parties or live concerts with thousands of people.

“Going for bike rides or doing other activities with a small circle of people will still meet the need for socialization and provide you with good physical, emotional, and mental benefits as you ease into the familiar, but new ways of life,” said Jeni Gronemus and Pam Kraus, behavioral care therapists at Prevea Health. 

There are also psychological practices you can integrate into your daily routine to improve your sense of structure. Exposure therapy is something often used for the treatment of individuals with anxiety or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

“In summary, what this means is we want to get just outside our comfort zone, on multiple occasions, over time,” said Erik Feia of Mosaic Counseling Group LLC. “At one’s own pace, continue to get progressively further outside of that comfort zone. … If you find yourself in a situation that turns out to be too far outside your current comfort zone, it is OK to leave that situation, reassess, and – if appropriate – try again later.” 

2. Be clear about policies and expectations.

Communicate clearly whether you expect others to mask or not mask, and explain the situation completely so others understand ahead of time. 

Mental health experts say local businesses and organizations should work to provide updated information about mask mandates and expectations for navigating the pandemic clearly.

“Businesses that clearly state policies by posting on entranceways or through email and other means in work environments help reduce ambiguity, which helps decrease overall anxiety,” Feia said. 

This is also applicable to family gatherings, hanging out with friends, or other social settings. Anxiety comes from uncertainty and not really knowing what to expect, according to Gronemus and Kraus, so the best way to tackle post-COVID anxiety is to know what to expect in unfamiliar situations. 

3. Connect with people who understand. 

Everyone is feeling a little overwhelmed. Don't be scared to confide in a friend about how you're feeling. 

As the researcher, author, and storyteller Brene Brown says, “Stay awkward, brave, and kind.” Remember that everyone is going through a bit of an awkward phase, adjusting from being socially isolated to suddenly being surrounded by other people. That can make you feel uncomfortable – especially if you have Autism Spectrum Disorder or other social impediments that might make you prone to discomfort with socializing in “normal” times.

“The awkwardness we’re feeling as we transition back into our social lives is impacting everyone else, too,” Gronemus and Kraus said. So, if you’re feeling a bit embarrassed, just remember that likely everyone else is, too. We’re all navigating this “new normal,” so it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with socializing and feel a little unfamiliar with common social etiquettes. 

4. Be patient with yourself.

Don't be hard on yourself because you're not the same place emotionally you were a year or two ago. It's a different world now, and we need to have time to adapt. 

According to Jones, everyone is at a different place, so it’s important to not compare yourself with other people and push yourself further than you are comfortable with.

“Setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ when you’re not comfortable is OK,” Jones said. “Self-care and relaxation techniques could be helpful as well. Being accepting and understanding of your own comfort level and following your own risk management guidelines is OK.” 

If you’re having a tough time adjusting to life after masking or vaccination, realize it’s totally OK to feel burned out by increased socialization and overwhelmed by life. Don’t push yourself or beat yourself up over not being at the same level everyone else may (or may not!) be at. 

5. Don’t judge.

To mask, or not to mask? If you see someone doing the opposite of you, don't judge. You don't know their health situation or vaccination status. Focus on keeping yourself safe and healthy. 

“Everyone is at a different place with their comfort level,” Jones said. Try not to judge others for wearing (or not wearing!) a mask. You never know if they may have underlying health issues or children who are unable to be vaccinated. Don’t assume you know what others are going through. Instead, listen and be empathetic to their situations. 

6. Validate how you feel.

Feeling overwhelmed? That's OK! Feeling great? That's OK! Think positively about and validate your current situation. 

Just as much as you validate others, be sure to take a moment to remind yourself that you are doing a great job with the turbulent world we’re in. “What we say to ourselves can make a big difference in how we think and feel about our current situation,” Feia said. “I would encourage validating your thoughts and feelings rather than beating up on yourself for feeling uncomfortable.” If you’re feeling burned out, give yourself permission to recharge after an outing. Prepare to feel more tired than expected, and don’t be shy to give yourself the alone time you need. 

7. Reach out for resources.

Although you've probably developed some great coping strategies in the past years, professional mental health experts have lots more to offer. If you're looking for new tips, don't be nervous to reach out. 

If you’re struggling with mental illness – or already struggle with mental illness and are looking for new coping strategies for the present moment, don’t be scared to reach out. “There are mental health resources in the community for people that might be having a harder time than others,” Jones said. “Our community has some great therapists, counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, as well as other mental health professionals that can help people in need!” Early research showed that the pandemic led to increased mental health issues, so realize you are not alone and it’s OK to ask for help or to talk about how you’re feeling. Professional counselors can offer additional coping strategies to help you navigate this new normal in the best way possible.