The region has entered a new phase of the COVID-19 pandemic; vaccinations are available for everyone age 12 and older, and infection rates are trending lower than the wintertime spike.
At the same time, the virus is still in our community, individuals are still getting sick, and we need more people to get vaccinated. The pandemic is not over, but the desire to return to “normal” is strong, especially as warmer weather returns.
Given these factors, many individuals may be anxious to safely “reenter” into more normal activities, while also feeling uncertain about safety and how to address the many changes forced upon themselves, their families, and their communities over the last year.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact on everyone and everything,” said Stephanie Lee, LCSW, Tower Behavioral Health CEO. “Many adults are missing their usual social interactions and engagements and are looking forward to the opportunity to participate, at varying levels, in social events again.”
Eduardo Espiridion, MD, Chair, Department of Psychiatry at Reading Hospital – Tower Health added, “While we know many are eager for social situations we must also recognize there are many individuals under significant stress due to loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or financial difficulties brought on by the pandemic. These feelings don’t just go away with a vaccination.”
Even as state and local authorities begin to ease restrictions, Ms. Lee and Dr. Espiridion stress the importance of continuing to follow the safety guidelines from the CDC. Mask wearing, washing hands, and practicing social distancing are known to prevent spread of the virus.
As we enter a second year with COVID, both Ms. Lee and Dr. Espiridion recommend individuals take a self-inventory of the activities that brought joy or fulfillment during quarantine, as well as those that didn’t. Recognizing the healthy habits and developing plans to keep them as part of your new routine is important.
They also recommend identifying unhealthy habits that resulted during the pandemic. “We know that some individuals developed unhealthy habits over the last year. This includes eating more unhealthy foods, increased consumption of alcohol, or excessive screen time. Taking time to reflect on these behaviors and creating a plan to stop them is important,” Ms. Lee stated.
Ms. Lee and Dr. Espiridion share that we must be patient with each other. “We are all going to have different levels of comfort attending events,” Dr. Espiridion shared. “After a year of isolation, it will be more difficult for some to re-engage with more normal social interactions. We’ve become conditioned to a new environment and many will need time to readjust. If you go somewhere that is crowded, it is possible you might feel anxious and overwhelmed.”
Ms. Lee and Dr. Espiridion recommend these tips to help reduce anxiety: Continue to wear a mask and avoid large gatherings in confined spaces.
Consider outdoor activities such as meeting a friend for a walk or dining outdoors.
Take small steps to adjust. Don’t take on too much too quickly or overcommit yourself.
If you find yourself in a social situation where you feel anxious or overwhelmed, remove yourself from the situation.
Only participate in activities that feel safe for you and your family.
Focus on, and continue to practice, the healthy hobbies developed during quarantine to manage stress.
Maintain and prioritize the traditions you created with your family during the pandemic. Many families have begun weekly movie or game nights.
Gradual steps toward more social situations can help reduce anxiety, Dr. Espiridion said. Exercise, he says, is a great way to start. For example, if you go for a walk in the park, you can see people and physical activity helps naturally reduce anxiety. “Small steps are key as we reenter,” he said.
“A panic attack is a common sign of being overwhelmed,” Ms. Lee shared. “Many times, when people have anxiety, they develop an unhealthy habit to avoid dealing with those feelings.” She shares that changes in sleep patterns, increased consumption of food or alcohol, or sudden weight gain are other signs you might be overwhelmed.
One other lasting impact resulting from the yearlong global pandemic is the more than 584,000 COVID-19 related deaths across the country.
“There are so many who have lost someone due to COVID-19,” said Stephanie Lee. “And, for many, they haven’t been able to grieve the loss properly. As we reopen, grief will be something we have to help others through. We have never had to deal with loss on this scale or magnitude.”
Dr. Espiridion added, “So many have been impacted by this tragedy and the families left behind will be feeling the effects for years to come. The grieving process is so much harder when you can’t connect with the individual and feel as if something is missing.”