- Kathy Wu, PhD
#TogetherAgain: Life After Quarantine
As of this writing (5/26/20), all 50 states are at some level of return to “normal”. What this means is that some places of business are gradually opening up and people are no longer having to shelter in place. Each state has its own re-entry process: some have numerical indicators while others, such as Pennsylvania, have color codes to demonstrate levels of safety for resumption. Cities like Philadelphia remain in shutdown mode, but levels of restrictions will ease in the coming weeks. For those of us who have been privileged enough to shelter in the safety of our homes, being able to move about more freely will bring along psychological and emotional challenges. To increase the chances of a triumphant re-entry, we need to engage our transition back thoughtfully and mindfully, and come #TogetherAgain.
Unfortunately, we are not actually returning to an old way of life. This is a near impossibility right now. The number of new COVID-19 cases is still precipitously climbing in some states and there is not yet a vaccine to treat or prevent cases from emerging. Our ability to test and track is also not at the level where we should let down our guards.
In fact, public health policy is mandating that we wear masks in public to protect against transmitting and contracting the virus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing masks is a low-risk intervention to limit COVID-19 spread, especially when we are not able to keep social distancing. Whenever possible, we all should maintain at least a 6-feet distance from others to reduce the spread of the disease, as the majority of positive COVID-19 carriers are asymptomatic. These necessary precautions mean that we are not truly able to resume life the way it was prior to the outbreak.
We will be harboring some predictable fears as we venture back out into the world. Some of us might be more diligent against possibly getting sick or making someone else sick unknowingly. As a result, we may have to opt to walk, bike, or drive to places instead of using crowded public transportation. These alternative modes of transportation will require that we take on extra time and cost burdens, which may add on to the stresses already felt. Many have lost their livelihoods and will have to find employment, which brings a slew of pragmatic and emotional stresses. Additionally, some of us may have added worries for vulnerable loved ones who are immune suppressed or compromised. Each day that the virus persists as a threat, we will have to ask the question of whether we should take the risk of going outdoors.
Most importantly, there are predictions of a possible second wave of the outbreak occurring in the fall and winter, and this is certainly something that looms in our minds. When our brains anticipate imminent threat, we respond accordingly. We will be more vigilant and cautious, but may also feel more jumpy, irritable, distractible, helpless, pessimistic, and hopeless. These strong negative emotional responses may not bode well for our overall health and wellness or our relationships. This means that our cognitive and physical functioning may be affected negatively over time.
MOURNING OF LOSSES
Most transitions bring forth feelings of loss and grief (yes, even happy events). Just as many of us had a hard time adjusting to the changes brought about by the onset of the quarantine, the need to make further changes as we return to our public lives will be just as jarring initially. Our routines associated with everything going virtual, including only ironing the fronts of our dress shirts, wearing comfortable sweat pants, or always having sit-down meals with loved ones, will soon feel like a distant memory again. These luxuries of a quieter, slower pace of life will be something we’ll long for once again.
More painfully, as we emerge from our shelters, we will be confronted more viscerally with the fact that over one hundred thousand lives in America were lost to the pandemic in such a short span of time. These numbers represent our parents, grandparents, children, uncles and aunts, friends, and neighbors. Since there has not been a time for collective mourning during the quarantine, the realness of these losses will be felt once more when we find ourselves in settings that typically held these individuals. For instance, having a small family gathering where a loved one used to make you laugh will make their absence more pronounced. Those who had to attend virtual funerals or grieve in solitude during quarantine will feel the weight of these losses once able to visit the headstones where their loved ones are laid.
The pandemic has forced us to close ourselves off to the world, and in the best of cases, allowed us to be #TogetherApart. We will have to reckon with our losses and restart a delayed mourning process. As a result, some may experience significant feelings of denial, anger, loneliness, sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness.
Over the past three months, we signed onto Quarantini Socials, helped elderly neighbors with grocery trips, FaceTimed with cousins, cooked splendid meals, developed hobbies, and hopefully got more sleep. I am sure that many of us had the thought: I wish I had made times for these things before. Yes, it took a global pandemic for you to practice these self-care strategies and for you to experience the joy of “the little things.” When you return to your public life, here are some things to consider:
1) Retain some joyful parts of your quarantine routine – schedule them into your post-quarantine schedule and follow through.
2) Get sleep and exercise. Devote a few days to do dry runs of your new routine. If your current wake up and bed times are starkly different from what you’ll have, begin to shift your morning and evening hours each day until they’re at parity. Be sure to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity into your day.
3) Buddy up. Identify someone or a small group you trust and respect to give and receive support during the transition back. Having someone you can chat with and process your feelings with will help normalize the changes you’re undergoing. The last thing you want is to feel like you’re all alone when you’re surrounded by other people again.
4) Slow down. No need to take on everything that you have been meaning to take up all at once. It is okay to say no to some things initially as you re-adjust to day-to-day responsibilities. You want to protect against over-exertion or being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things you need to do. Go the route of under-promising and over-delivering.
5) Check in regularly on individuals you developed more frequent contact with during the lock-down. These relationships matter, so avoid using that usual excuse that you’re too busy to keep in touch with loved ones.
6) Allow yourself and others to grieve. Just because the quarantine is over doesn’t mean you have to be done grieving – grief is a multifaceted emotion that operates on its own schedule.
7) If possible, donate your time and/or money to important community causes. Lots of people have been impacted by the public health crisis and could use your help.
8) Finally, if you notice after two weeks of being back in the world that your mood has changed for the worse, or that you are feeling sad, worried, angry, anxious, or distressed more often than not throughout your day, it might be worthwhile to seek professional support from a psychologist. A therapist will be able to help you during this time of extraordinary change.