After more than a year, COVID-19 infections rates are down and the number of those vaccinated continues to rise. Things are starting to open up.
Back to normal was something we all dreamed about, month after month. And now? For some, the FOMO (fear of missing out) experienced before the pandemic has been replaced with FONO (fear of normal). This can range from a continued fear of infection as offices, schools, and public locations open up, to being stressed about how to resume socialization with those outside your household. Exiting your COVID cave of safety might not be easy, even if you’ve been waiting patiently for the chance to get out. People have been expressing their FONO on social media and the subject was addressed in a recent Today show report, in which psychologist Deborah Serani shared, “This is a global example of what’s called re-entry after trauma.”
With that in mind, as we inch towards a new normal, a first good step is recognizing that the pandemic is a traumatic event we collectively experienced. Then, we can take extra care to address our needs.
Below, find everyday stress-reducing tips that will also help us cope during this unique time, as we approach re-entry into an opened up world. Above all else, try to remind yourself that you’re not alone in this. With a global pandemic, every one of us is impacted.
Recognize and address your mental health challenges.
We know from surveys and studies that the pandemic has impacted our collective behavioral health. A study conducted in June 2020 revealed that “40.9% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%), symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic (26.3%), and having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19 (13.3%).” For many, a return to “normal” might mean addressing mental health challenges that intensified or arose during the pandemic. We have heard from many community members about how their mental health symptoms have increased during the pandemic; others have experienced mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety, for the first time. If you have a therapist and/or psychiatrist, continue to talk about how you are doing. If you have recently developed stress and/or find yourself facing new mental health challenges, check in with your primary care doctor and discuss how you are feeling. As always, reach out to your network for support and seek help if you need it. There is help and hope.
Observe and accept how you feel.
When you are stressed, fearful, or uncomfortable, pause to think about what you are feeling and consider what is activating those feelings. Maybe talking to a friend about plans to go to the movies is making your stomach tighten, looking online for flights to see family after more than a year is making your head spin, or considering a return to the office is making you want to hit snooze on the alarm for a fourth time. When you recognize how you are feeling and what is making you uncomfortable or stressed, you can pause to take a break and explore what’s going on. Without judgment, you can focus on ways to address what you’re feeling and prepare for what comes next.
Go at your own pace and set your own boundaries.
Accept how you feel and make decisions that feel right for you. Start with being honest with yourself about your limits, and don’t feel bad if you’re not ready to resume in-person or public activities.
Be direct about what works for you.
Try being direct when discussing plans with friends and family. Not ready for normal socializing? Try using “I” statements so it’s clear that you are making decisions based on your personal needs: “I’m not ready for that right now” or “I can’t make it this time, but hope we can in the near future.” Being upfront can also put others at ease. Remember, we’ve all be impacted by the pandemic.
When you’re stressed, the idea of meditating might seem impossible, but we know it can work. Start slow with breathing in a peaceful location, or sitting outside with a cup of tea (without scrolling through your phone!). Deep breathing, meditation, and mindful practices can train our brain to better manage stress. If you are new to mindfulness, consider apps such as Calm, Insight Timer, Headspace, 10 Percent Happier, and UCLA Mindful or search for guided meditations on YouTube.
Moving your body is one of the best stress-reducing activities. Making time to walk or run outside, bike, dance, or practice yoga might be just what you need to find calm. Daily exercise naturally produces stress-relieving hormones in your body and improves your overall physical health. More on exercise benefits.
Set aside time for yourself.
Schedule time to engage in an activity that makes you feel rested or happy. It might be reading a book, watching a movie, listening to music, taking a bath, or walking your dog around the neighborhood.
Watch what you eat and drink.
Choosing a diet with whole foods, including lots of vegetables, fruit and healthy grains, is good for a healthy body and mind. Eating well and staying hydrated can also help stabilize your mood. Limit your consumption of highly processed food (it’s called junk food for a reason). Also refrain from using alcohol and recreational drugs as a means to unwind; they don’t actually reduce stress can often worsen it. If you’re struggling with substance abuse, educate yourself and get help.
Get enough sleep.
Our bodies and minds need rest to function properly. Symptoms of some mental health conditions, like mania in bipolar disorder, can be triggered by getting too little sleep. (Learn more about getting good sleep for better mental health.)
Spend time in nature.
Studies show that time in nature reduces stress. Something as simple as tending to a garden or house plants or walking through a park can help calm you. (Learn more about the mental health benefits of nature.)
If you’re feeling anxious, try this grounding exercise: pause to name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Be kind to yourself.
Your feelings are valid. Talk to yourself and treat yourself as you would a friend. Also, remembering that this is a global pandemic that has impacted all of us might make you feel less critical about how you feel.
You don’t have to suffer alone. Reach out to your network for support, whether it’s a friend, family member, a therapist, faith leader or a support group. It’s true that we are stronger together and opening up to talk about what we’re feeling and thinking can help. If you live with a mental health condition or have a family member with a mental health condition, consider attending a free support group provided by your local NAMI California affiliate. (Note: during the pandemic, support groups are not being held in person and many affiliates are offering virtual support with calls or video-conferencing options. If you have a friend from a support group, you can also consider reaching out to connect and offer support by phone.) If you are experiencing a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text NAMI to 741-741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.
Keep up or seek therapy. If the steps you’ve taken aren’t working, it may be time to share with your mental health professional. They can help you pinpoint specific events that trigger you and help you create an action plan to change them.
More on the subject:
California Surgeon General’s Stress Relief Playbook