Content derived from DocTalk with Jamie Friddle, LMHC, Psychiatry and Counseling Center
At this phase in the pandemic, what exactly do we mean by “normal” now?
The actual meaning of the word normal is “right angle” so it essentially can mean whatever is right for the moment. What was right for the moment before the pandemic hit was one thing, and now we’ve experienced a year and a half of establishing a new normal within the pandemic itself. What was right for that moment was masking, social distancing and following guidance from the CDC. Now, we have some uncertainty surrounding what our new normal will look like and what is right for this moment and the future. We need to be open to blending the things we’ve come to enjoy, or what we’ve benefited from, during the pandemic and see how we can make them more ongoing.
What are some of the concerns or hesitations some people are having about returning to normal?
Many are continuing to have health concerns that are almost a mirror image of the health concerns we had at the start of the pandemic. Right now, we are not certain where the virus is and who is vaccinated. Similar to the start of the pandemic, we weren’t certain who was symptomatic, or how the virus was being transmitted. Wherever there is uncertainty, there tends to be anxiety. With about 50% of Washingtonians now vaccinated, many people are feeling uneasy about going to their neighborhood garage sale, their friend’s barbecue, or family gathering because there isn’t certainty around it.
Each person needs to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with and be clear with others who are extending invitations about what you are feeling. We need to be patient with others and allow the time each of us needs to come back together again. For over a year, we’ve gotten very used to spending more time alone and some of us may feel rusty when socializing with others. I am often hearing from many people that it’s hard to sustain conversations, they don’t know what to say next, and they don’t know how to pick up the thread of a conversation. We can expect to feel this for a while until we get used to being around each other again.
What does it mean if some friends aren’t responding to messages or invitations to get together?
It is important to consider if this person’s behavior, or lack of response, is consistent with their behavior before the pandemic. If it’s a relationship that’s really important to you, reach out to that person and find out what’s going on and where they stand. Not everyone is going to feel the same way about getting out and socializing again at the same time. Some people have different health concerns, they may be immunocompromised, or live with others who are immunocompromised. Open communication and being willing to hear what others are feeling as the pandemic slows down is going to be important. Understand that our feelings may change frequently. You may not have known that a friend was seriously bothered by the prospect of catching COVID, or you may not have known that they are seriously bothered by the vaccination itself. The only way you will know is by relating to them and talking to them about it.
What if I don’t want to give up some of the pandemic lifestyle changes?
If you really value it, don’t give it up. Take note of what has been most meaningful during this time. Some have really valued being at home and spending more time with family and loved ones. Some people have not and have missed working at the office. Be clear about what parts of the pandemic lifestyle really served you and improved your life.
- Make a list of those things in one column, in another column, make a list of things in the pre-pandemic life that you had to do.
- If some items on these two lists collide, there may be an issue. For example, if you enjoy more time with your family, but two-hour commutes daily really took that time away, then you know those things are going to collide.
- Rate that collision on a scale from 1-3 (where 3 is intolerable where you feel you cannot go back and do it). Use your voice now and try to negotiate a new normal.
I don’t think that we have the ability to fully imagine what the new normal is going to be like. We know what we’ve been through, and the way things were before. We may not have an imagination for how those two things fit together in the future and we’ll have to make it up. Now is the time to begin negotiating your new normal which will be different for each person.
For those having anxieties or other heightened concerns, what do you recommend for how they can seek help?
Anxieties tend to grow larger quickly when you are feeling alone. A good first step is finding a close friend or someone who may not always share your perspective, but will listen openly and without judgement.. Try to reassure yourself that you are not alone. If you find anxiety is impairing your functioning, think about ways you can change your situation.
The word agency describes our ability to identify our choices and make them happen. Talk to your primary care physician and there may be some things that they can do to help support you. Do your research, and you will likely find that you’re not alone in struggling to make another massive change in your life. We’ve had to make huge adjustments in the last year and a half, and we’ve been in this phase for so long, it might feel like this is just the way it is—do we really need to change? Some things might be better if we change them and some things might not be. Keep the channels open and keep talking openly with those you care for about what this new normal will look like.