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Experts offer advice on how to return to 'normal' life

Mental health experts offered tips on how to adjust to the "new normal" following the eventual end of the pandemic.
As more states broaden their eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations, life could slowly begin to inch toward normalcy.TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

As the vaccination rollout continues across the country, many are cautiously optimistic about a return to "normal" this summer; the Biden administration has said that if vaccines continue to go well, people may be able to gather in small groups by the Fourth of July.

However, this return to something resembling normal is making some anxious. People who are still worried about contracting the virus or who are used to spending time alone may find it difficult to return to their pre-pandemic social lives.

TODAY Health spoke to several experts who offered their best tips on how to manage your mental health during these changes.

Allow yourself to feel worried or anxious.

Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, said that feeling "insecure, nervous or anxious" is a very normal reaction following the events of the past year. Rather than trying to avoid those feelings, she recommends embracing them.

"The phrase 'new normal' is something we're all using but it's a way of kind of saying you have to redefine what your life is, what's important to you, how you're going to carry on post-pandemic," Serani said.

Take it slowly.

Ariane Ling, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York, New York, said that there's no need for the transition to pre-pandemic life to happen all at once, especially since people are only just starting to get their vaccinations. Even once you are vaccinated, there's no need to cram everything in.

"One can sort of mitigate or manage how they're going to reopen," Ling explained. "There's a collective healing that sort of has to happen before we can just jump back into normal ... Everyone sort of has their own idea and understanding of what feels safe to them."

DeAnna Crosby, a therapist and clinical director of New Method Wellness, a treatment center in San Juan Capistrano, California, said that going "really slow" is the best way to manage "stress and anxiety during the return."

"We don't need to see everybody we've missed in the first two weeks. We can be mindful and plan out our business ... If we just sit mindfully and look at our calendar, we don't have to accept every social invitation that we're invited to. We don't have to say yes all the time," Crosby said. "It might be overwhelming initially, in the beginning, to attend every reopening you're invited to. Just keep in mind that you have plenty of time. Take your time to readjust to the new normal."

Set healthy and adjustable boundaries.

As part of that goal of taking it slowly, the experts interviewed for this story all recommended setting boundaries: You don't need to return to your pre-pandemic social life right away, and if you're wary of seeing certain friends or are nervous about some interactions, it's OK to take a step back.

Serani recommends setting a "window of tolerance," which is a "zone of comfort" that you can work, live and socialize within, adjusting it as things open up more.

"You can stretch and elongate it as you become more comfortable," Serani said. "That recovery and reentry is not a jump in the pool experience, it's a slow progression back into life."

Engage in candid conversations.

Ling said that it can be helpful to have frank conversations with friends, family and other people you want to see, where you discuss what would be comfortable for all. If people have an open dialogue, that can make it easier to compromise or find an activity that works for everyone.

"Ask people what they're comfortable with, and share what you feel comfortable with," Ling said. "Try to make it part of the conversation. We're all trying to reintegrate back together."

If you do find yourself in a situation you're uncomfortable with, Ling said that there can be a kind of "power" in knowing that you can leave at any time. Serani said that having a plan can make those moments even easier.

"Practice, plan, think ahead," Serani said. "Play out these scenarios, what things make you socially nervous or insecure. What can you do to install some type of grounding or safety or structure for you? ... Boundaries and limits are a form of self-care and this is a new environment. We are not returning to the same old place. We're not virus-free, we may never be. If post-pandemic life requires us to get a little more vigilant and a little more self-directed, that's OK."

However, if you're having difficulty connecting with someone or finding a compromise, just know that you can try again in the future.

"It's like learning a new language," Serani said. "We'll all get there."

Give yourself some time for self-care.

Crosby emphasized the need for self-care: Many people will be dealing with a lot as they try to transition back to "normal" life, and it can be good to take some time for yourself.

Self-care might look different depending on the person. Crosby suggested journaling, which can help people process what they're going through, and finding a "trusted loved one" who you can talk candidly with.

"Just keep talking about it ... discuss how you go about reactivating with your loved ones, talk about what's going on," Crosby said. If you'd feel more comfortable speaking with a professional, that's also a great option: Crosby said Zoom therapy can be a great bridge for people.

"Be aware that you're going to feel overwhelmed, expect it to come, and if you have an expectation of it, it'll probably be less than it would if you weren't aware of it," Crosby said. "... Something about being mindful about it helps us accept it better."