ColumnsSmart Health

Adapting to “The New Normal”

How to combat the stress of returning to a changed world.

As states across the country reopen and vaccinations are now widely available, figuring out how to approach life in a new COVID world can be both a challenge and an opportunity. For those who are apprehensive about adjusting to this changed world, these tips for nurturing your own mental health during stressful times may help. 

The Basics: Get Vaccinated, Follow Guidelines

Getting vaccinated is the number-one strategy for reducing the spread of COVID. All adults in Texas are now eligible for vaccination (regardless of health status), and many of the barriers to vaccine access have been substantially reduced.

As more individuals are vaccinated, venturing out into the world with a sense of security is starting to feel within reach. However, the easy availability of the vaccine does not mean we should disregard the safety protocols developed over the last year. Even after being vaccinated, it’s important to continue adhering to recommendations from the CDC and other trusted healthcare professionals.

For example, according to the CDC, wearing masks in public is still recommended, even with a vaccination. However, for those who have been fully vaccinated, indoor gatherings without masks should be safe. Also, the need to quarantine or isolate for 14 days after being exposed to someone with COVID is no longer required if you are fully vaccinated. Monitoring yourself for symptoms (and responding accordingly) is now sufficient and far less disruptive.

As we continue to learn more about the virus and the ways it can be transmitted, staying up to date with current recommendations is an important part of lowering risk for yourself and others.

The Anxiety of Venturing Out

After so many months of life filled with restrictions, it can feel a little strange to venture out into the world again. A gradual approach may help in managing any feelings of anxiety that crop up.

For example, if dining inside a restaurant seems like a bridge too far, but you can’t stand the idea of another night of take-out, consider trying a restaurant with outdoor seating, or dine inside before the dinner rush begins. This way, you will be able to assess restaurant protocols without the fear that a large group will be seated next to your table. Also, give yourself permission to leave public spaces that feel too enclosed or constrained.

In some cases, we can’t always choose whether or not to become proactive about mitigating risk. With companies increasingly bringing employees back into the office, dealing with more people in the workplace is on the horizon for many. Following guidelines regarding distancing in elevators and conference rooms and continuing to mask in public areas will not only keep you safe, but also allow you to get comfortable with the idea of engaging with larger groups. It’s also a nice way to demonstrate respect for others and their need for space.

For many, feeling stressed about the fallout from COVID has impacted the way we feel about ourselves and our outlook on life. Chronic feelings of worry or nervousness have become particularly commonplace over the past year. Changes in appetite, bodily symptoms like an upset stomach or heartburn, and insomnia can be especially troublesome, and result in weight gain, physical discomfort, and fatigue.

Give “Mindfulness” a Chance

Implementing a “mindfulness” practice can be extraordinarily helpful in managing stress and reducing overall levels of anxiety. Many podcasts or YouTube videos can be found that focus on meditation, or “quieting the mind” using a wide variety of approaches ranging from guided imagery to listening to the sounds of nature. It may take several tries before you are able to find the type of relaxation method that works best for you.

Smartphone apps such as Headspace and Calm also provide exercises that focus on breathing and promote relaxation. Exercising, going on walks, and listening to music or audiobooks can also be ways of moving your mind into the present moment, rather than ruminating on things in the past (which you can’t control) or in the future (which you can’t predict).

The trick here is to try something—or maybe all of these things! While one single activity may not substantially reduce worry, the combination of several activities can have a great impact. Given the stress of the past year, we can’t assume that our usual methods of coping will be sufficient. Doing what you used to do (while also adding new skills) is the best way to manage the stresses of a changed world.

When the pandemic first began and the world shut down, many of us thought about all of the things we would do with that extra time at home. People said they were finally going to get around to things they had put off for too long. We read books, caught up on movies and television (remember Tiger King?), and connected with old friends. We resumed old hobbies, tried new ones, and started home projects and businesses. Fantasies of exiting the pandemic in better shape—financially, mentally, and physically—consumed our culture.

Perhaps what we did not anticipate is that the last year also provided an opportunity to slow down and take stock of what truly matters. Rather than focusing solely on what it is that we do, we could think about who it is we would like to be. Ask yourself: What is the quality of my relationship to work, to others, and with myself? Are there any areas that are ripe for continued growth?

Finally, savoring the moment is now all the sweeter because we have been forced to recognize that life can be short and unpredictable. What lessons did you learn from all of the death and suffering during the past year, and what new knowledge will you carry into your “new normal”?

This article appears in the May 2021 edition of OutSmart magazine.


Daryl Shorter, MD

Daryl Shorter, MD, is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and is board certified in both general and addiction psychiatry. His clinical practice focuses on veteran care, and he lectures widely on LGBTQ mental health. Dr. Shorter can be reached at [email protected]
Check Also
Back to top button