Ten weeks ago (or was it ten years?), if you’d asked how we’d be feeling once lockdown lifts, the answer would have been simple: joy! And yet, now that the prospect of self-isolation is easing, and “Stay Home!” is more a suggestion than an order, you might find yourself experiencing some unexpected emotions: anxiety, fear, guilt…that nostalgia you can have in real time, when you think about how much you’re going to miss this very moment when it’s over? Yeah, I feel it, too.
You see, for all the parts of it that I truly loathe (please, no more Gen X celebs attempting TikTok), as the weeks have passed, there have arisen a compelling number of reasons why I—the person who was thrown into this with so much dread—am now not actually ready for quarantine to end.
To help us work through ~all~ the feelings we’re having about the end of this New Normal, and the start of the New New Normal, I chatted with Dr Kathleen Smith, a licensed therapist who’s also the author of Everything Isn’t Terrible, a very useful book about managing the tricky emotions mentioned above. Based on three very potential scenarios, she came through with the helpful real talk—and handy coping strategies—for whatever kind of way you’re feeling about the end of this weird chapter in history…and the start of another, probably equally bizarre, one.
But before we get there: Whatever form of freak-out about this you’re having? It’s OK. “It’s only normal to get comfortable in a new routine,” says Dr Smith. “As humans, we adjust and adapt. If you’ve managed to calm down and be less distressed with the way you’re functioning now, it only makes sense that interrupting that would cause some anxiety or distress.” Phew.
Potential Scenario 1: You’re just completely terrified of The Outside
Two months ago, the government told you to avoid The Outside at all costs and, good citizen that you are, you faithfully didn’t leave the house, Lysol’d your delivered groceries, and refused to even hug the people you live with. Now all of a sudden, that same government is encouraging you to (with a mask on! At six-feet apart! Behind so much plexiglass!) get out there, support small businesses and play some tennis. Of course that’s making you anxious, says Dr Smith. “Life isn’t returning to normal. We’re entering a new unknown,” she explains, addressing why you might be tripping over things that used to be routine. “We have to adapt our behaviour yet again, and there’s a lot of anxiety that goes with that.”
It’s human behaviour, she says, to always choose the comfortable over the unfamiliar—but you also can’t let the fear paralyse you. “Stay focussed on the things you can control,” she advises. “Focus on the reality, and not the nightmare scenarios.” As you begin to venture out into the world, she continues, it’s helpful to approach each day as a task, and consider what it looks like to navigate that challenge thoughtfully vs anxiously. “Just because you’re anxious about something doesn’t mean it’s unsafe,” she reminds us. “It’s just different, and you have to push through that.”
Potential Scenario 2: You feel guilty because you’ve kind of enjoyed quarantine
For the privileged among us, quarantine has slipped by in a tie-dyed, Dalgona coffee-fuelled blur, the days blending into each other in a way that isn’t altogether unpleasant. “I think I might love this,” you might whisper to yourself as you actually have time to read the paper in the morning, or go for a long walk after you WFH all day. And then, of course, the guilt hits. To feel this way when so many other people are suffering? You’re obviously a bad, bad person. Not so fast, says Dr Smith. “Sometimes we feel guilt because we’re experiencing a different emotion than someone else,” she explains, saying that when we’re happy, we want the people around us to be happy and vice versa. “When there’s a discrepancy, and we feel differently, we feel like we’re doing something wrong.” Odds are, you’re probably not, because, fantastic as you are, you are not responsible for the entire weight of the world.
That said, sometimes your guilt can be a little nudge, or, as Dr Smith puts it, “it’s asking you to do something, like help a co-worker, or reach out to someone who’s struggling.” Listen to that voice—but not the one that’s beckoning you into an unhelpful “you’re such a selfish person” shame spiral. “You’re probably not going to want to reach out to people if you’re wearing the shame label,” says Smith.
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And as an aside to all the introverts who have secretly been loving this excuse to curl up in your shell and be alone? Smith is with you (“This is the ultimate Get Out of Human Contact free card!”), but she also cautions against trying to keep your Party For One going too long. “We’re pretty social creatures, and it’s hard to keep your mood up long-term without that human contact.” (We see your House Party fatigue, however, and validate that you are entitled to that feeling.)
Potential Scenario 3: You dread going back on the treadmill of life
These last few months have felt a bit like the pause button has been hit, and if you’re feeling reluctant to press play again? You’re not alone. “This time is dismantling this idea that we need to be busy and successful all the time to have a good life,” says Dr Smith, who’s heard the sentiment a lot. “People are questioning whether uber-achieving all the time is the best way to live, and they’re thinking more flexibly about what a good day, or a good life looks like.”
Inevitably, of course, the merry-go-round will start again, which is why Smith recommends making a list now, while we’re still in it, of the things and habits that you want to hold onto when all this is over—and what you might want to leave behind. “Ask yourself, ‘What is actually important to me? What excites me? Or what’s just a societal norm of things I feel I’m supposed to do? When do I just borrow other people’s definition of what matters?’” Hold onto that, and check yourself against it when you feel yourself slipping in pre-COVID autopilot.
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And if your dread is coupled with a fear of that this New Normal will be even more challenging than the already stressful world you knew before? “Remind yourself of your own resilience,” encourages Dr Smith. “Remember your own capacity for figuring things out as you go. We’ve lived in Unprecedented Times before.”