The end of isolation feels closer than ever, with many states opening up vaccines to anyone 16 and older. Students are returning to in-person learning, and some companies are beginning to talk about bringing employees back into offices. President Joe Biden has said that by the Fourth of July, the United States will resemble something like normal.
Ready or not, change is coming. But after more than a year of staying six feet apart, the thought of transitioning to a "new normal" may come with mixed emotions.
"We have all been acting like we are housebound with social anxiety over the last year, and rightfully so," says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist and author of "How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety."
People may feel that their social skills are rusty, experts say, or feel anxious about doing activities that they carried out daily before the pandemic.
"Some people feel really excited about being able to return to normalcy and to be able to go back to work," says Alyssa Mancao, a licensed social worker and owner of Alyssa Marie Wellness. "And others feel that it's too soon and they're really frustrated with the different belief systems that other people have."
The pandemic has changed people's lives in disparate ways. So as we re-enter something that resembles prepandemic life, there's no one-size-fits-all advice for how to do so as smoothly as possible, according to experts. Still, there are tips that may help.
Take stock. Unlike other collective traumas such as natural disasters or race-based violence, which you may have seen in the news but not been directly exposed to, the pandemic has affected the lives of virtually everyone in the world. But each person will have a different set of experiences and traumas they may need to work through, experts say.
"Take to pen and paper, and write down a list of how you were in particular impacted and really start to process [that] if you can," suggests Nedra Tawwab, a licensed therapist and author of "Set Boundaries and Find Peace."
Mancao says it's also important to talk about the trauma while it's happening. "People are more likely to have long-lasting effects from this pandemic if they've been suppressing their feelings or psychologically isolating themselves," she says.
You might start by writing out your thoughts, feelings and reflections, engaging in activities that feel soothing and grounding (such as being in nature) and practicing mindfulness or breath work, Mancao suggests. You can also talk with someone you trust or get the support of a licensed mental health professional or a support group.
Amanda White, a counselor and founder of the Therapy For Women Center, says everyone could benefit from a therapist. But she says there are some signs that you may need professional help to cope with this transition, particularly if you do not feel like you can be honest with friends, family or loved ones about the support you need. For example, White says, "If you lost a loved one this year, grief is a really difficult thing. A lot of people could use the support of a therapist with that."
Monitor the situation. Although the end of the pandemic may seem near, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that opening too early could lead to preventable deaths. In recent weeks, with some states loosening restrictions, the United States is seeing a rise in cases in some places.
It's important to continue to monitor coronavirus risks in your area and only take risks that feel physically safe, Hendriksen says. Still, it's OK to push through some of the unease that comes from being out socially again. As she puts it, "Go at your own pace, but do inch your way in" to resuming some normal social activities.
"Oftentimes, we feel like we have to feel ready or confident before we can do something, and that's backward," Hendriksen says of the social anxiety that may crop up. "I would encourage folks to put action before confidence, before readiness, and then our readiness and confidence will catch up."
Because everyone is figuring out what the "new normal" looks like at the same time, if you try something and it doesn't work, or feel good for you, try something else. As Hendriksen puts it: "Re-entry is an experiment, not an exam."
Create a ritual. Why do we have rituals such as funerals and graduations? "Commemorating the end of something allows our brains to make sense of it," according to White.
That's why trying to find your own sense of closure is paramount. People generally have a harder time adjusting to unpredictability, White says, which may make it challenging for us to process the pandemic being "over" — especially because there probably will not be a clear, formal ending to the coronavirus.
"Remember that you have a right to create your own ritual," White says. "There isn't a time limit on it. You don't need to rely on other people or dates to create closure."
For example, you can celebrate holidays that you missed in the past year or do something to acknowledge a graduation or birthday that you may not have been able to observe in the way that you wanted to.
Be true to yourself. Jenny TeGrotenhuis, a licensed mental health counselor, says Americans often commit to more than they can balance. But some people's slower lifestyles during the pandemic may have given them a chance to take stock of what's important. "One thing that people are going to be challenged by is returning back to time being the driver," she says.
As the world opens back up, it's not necessary to recommit ourselves to all of the obligations we may have had before, TeGrotenhuis says. She's working with her clients to determine whether they can avoid returning to things that felt stressful while keeping the rhythms that have felt good.
Don't force it. About 53% of people in the United States had mental health problems in July 2020, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, and experts have warned of a longer-lasting mental health crisis spurred by the pandemic.
"When the pandemic ends, people might feel like, 'What's wrong with me?' " White says. That can be exacerbated by seeing others outwardly celebrate shifts to post-pandemic life.
But supporting one another may help, White says, by letting people close to you know that you are willing to meet them where they're at. "Tell them that you're there for them, that you love them and you're there to support them if they need to cancel or they need to do something different," White suggests.
Hendriksen says that while you should never force a friend to do anything, you can encourage or remind them that this transition will be difficult. Try using phrases like, "The first few minutes are the hardest" or "You'll be proud of yourself for facing your fears."
Mancao recommends that people be kind to themselves: "It's important that people do their best not to judge themselves for the ways that they are coping."
If you're having trouble cultivating self-compassion, you can also try asking yourself, "What you would say to a best friend in this situation?" and repeat those things back to yourself.