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I don't have the energy for my pre-pandemic lifestyle — now what?

Could the pandemic really force our busy-is-better society to slow down?
I can't believe how many things I used to do in a single day.
I can't believe how many things I used to do in a single day.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

In the "before times," my days consisted of an hourlong commute (round-trip!) on the subway, long workdays spent in an open-plan office surrounded by colleagues, a post-work gym class (in person!) and then usually a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up a few things for dinner.

I'd get home around 8 p.m., having just a couple hours to wind down until I went to sleep and then did it all over again the next day. And the next ... and the next. Honestly, I thought nothing of it — it's just how things were, and most of my friends and colleagues had similar schedules.

Even having a child didn't slow me down. I'd strap my tiny baby onto my chest and ferry him across town for a baby-and-me yoga class, or to a restaurant to meet up with friends. My bag was stuffed with items to keep him happy in case of an emergency: string cheese, rattles, a bottle of milk, those weird puffed snacks that babies eat. My shoulders had long grown accustomed to the weight — an entire life being schlepped from place to place.

And I loved it, truly. It's also simply how I thought my life would always be, at least until I retired.

Then — then. The story you all know: Then the pandemic happened. I stopped doing, well, nearly all of it. I worked from home, I worked out at home, I ate all my meals at home. I moved to a bigger home, I settled into the permanence. I found peace, or at the very least, a new routine.

Yet now the world is reopening and I can't imagine going back to my old life. Don't get me wrong: I'm plenty ready for the pandemic to end. I miss restaurants. I miss my friends. I'm so sick of the lower half of my face being concealed by a scratchy mask that I could scream. But my ways have changed in the past year. I'm a homebody now. Sometimes an entire day will pass without me leaving the house.

The other day I was browsing Twitter and I stumbled across this tweet, as did the hundreds of thousands of other people who "liked" it:

It put into words precisely how I felt while giving me reassurance that I'm not alone. The writer of that tweet, British editor Katie Packer, told me that she composed it after going into the office for one of the first times since the pandemic, and after one or two meetings, found herself "completely exhausted" — even though she used to easily handle a much busier schedule before the pandemic.

"The difference between my energy levels was just crazy," Packer said.

I know what she means: The energy required to do almost anything feels overwhelming these days.

Deborah Serani, a psychologist at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, said there are two reasons why we're feeling this way. The first is simple: We're exhausted, all of us.

"There is a true physical fatigue from living in the margins of trauma," Serani told TMRW. "We know from people who have been through extraordinary experiences that a lot of the time, what you were once able to do, you're kind of baby stepping as you enter back into the new normal."

There is a true physical fatigue from living in the margins of trauma.

Deborah Serani, psychologist

The word trauma may be hard to stomach for those who weren't directly affected by the pandemic — people who didn't lose their job or say goodbye to loved ones or didn't contract the virus themselves, for example. But Serani argues that we're all dealing with the collective trauma from the pandemic, even though some people will manage it better than others. And trauma takes a toll, both emotionally and physically.

Another explanation for how we're feeling is less tangible.

"There's another piece to this that is also part of trauma, and it's redefining what is really important to you," Serani said. "It's kind of an existential experience of, well, maybe I didn't realize how busy I was, and maybe busy is not necessarily good. I think about Newton's first law of motion: An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Maybe many of us are learning that the dizziness of the pre-pandemic world was something we did without really recognizing how much it did take from us or how much it took to keep up that high level of octane."

Judging by the number of people who responded to her tweet, Packer suspects the latter may be the case.

"I feel everyone is on the same page," she said. "But for some reason, we don't always speak out loud. I think we're kind of expected to go back to what was considered normal before the pandemic, and actually a lot of us are starting to think and realize that maybe that wasn't normal."

But could the pandemic really cause a permanent shift in our always-on-the-go, busy-is-better culture?

Serani certainly thinks so. And it seems to be the case for me, at least. To be fair, I like to stay busy, and I doubt that will change all that much. But I do find myself leaning into whatever makes life a little easier these days, and sometimes that means passing on events and staying close to home. Serani pointed to the slow-living movement, which encourages people to enjoy each moment to the fullest rather than cramming in as many moments as possible and only being halfway checked in.

Maybe, she mused, we'll see more people gravitating toward that type of lifestyle as we all emerge from our pandemic hibernation.

"I think there are some people who are going to say, 'Eh, it wasn't such a big thing, it wasn't so hard.' And then there are many of us who are like, 'Are you kidding?!' There's a very big paradigm shift here," she said. "I think the field of mental illness is going to be researching this time. I think people are going to be forever changed. I think there's going to be a reevaluation for work, for family, for self. I think there's already big changes happening."

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