Why Getting Back to Pre-Pandemic Routines May Sound Exhausting, Psychologists Say
It's okay if getting back to 'normal' sounds a little overwhelming. Here's what mental health experts recommend to help you cope.
Although 43-year-old Minneapolis area resident and artist Christy Johnson is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and her state has lifted its mask mandates and many restrictions, she’s not eager to jump right back into her pre-pandemic routines.
“During the pandemic, I felt happier than I ever have,” she says. “I’m a big introvert and homebody, so it’s not surprising that I’m not excited about getting back to my go-go-go life of pre-pandemic times.”
As the COVID-19 crisis ramped up in the United States, Johnson and her husband focused on making their lives smaller, she says. That meant quitting their expensive gym and building a workout space in the garage. They took on home-improvement projects, like painting most of their home’s interior walls. They started making fancy cocktails and ambitious recipes.
Johnson revived an old love for reading books. In pre-pandemic days, she listened to audiobooks while doing other tasks, and it had been years since she took time to sit down with a physical book. Now, pulls opens a book every day.
“I’m less anxious and exhausted now,” she says. “I’ve dreaded the return to ‘normal’ for months.” In the past she says she was “terrible” when it came to setting boundaries with her time. “Now I feel more empowered to honor my wants and needs. I just don’t see myself going back.”
For Better Sleep if You’re Back to School, the Office, or Other Pre-Pandemic Routines
Johnson is far from alone in choosing a post-pandemic lifestyle that makes the most of what she’s learned about herself and her needs in the past year. The concerns about masking, social distancing, and virus spread seem to be getting replaced with a different kind of anxiety — a kind of hesitation over filling up schedules all over again, getting overbooked, and spreading ourselves thin.
We’ve trained ourselves for 18 months to embrace making our lives more intimate and introspective. And for many people like Johnson, the hesitation over “going back” is likely to mean our post-pandemic routines may not look identical to our pre-pandemic routines (even if and when safety guidelines allow it). That’s not only okay, it’s a major part of self-care, according to Los Angeles-based?Jenny Yip, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Renewed Freedom Center, which specializes in treating anxiety.
A lot of us had a lot of time to think about what’s taking up our energy and if it’s worth it, she says. “That’s giving all of us a new perspective on what’s meaningful.”
As you adjust to yet another new “normal” — here’s advice from Dr. Yip and others how to prioritize self-care and those routines you do want to hold on to.
Why Does Getting Back to Pre-Pandemic Routines (Including Ones I Loved!) Sound Exhausting?
Many of us have gotten used to a pandemic “normal” over the past year and a half. Filling up the schedule again means you’re now disrupting the new routines you’ve gotten into, Yip says.
“On top of that, it’s not really a return to normal because we still have to be cautious of COVID-19,” she adds.
With new COVID-19 virus variants on the rise, safety recommendations are continuing to evolve. And that means the risk calculations we’re all making when it comes to doing everyday activities may still be continuously changing, too, which is a stressor, Yip says. “The world hasn’t completely opened back up yet.”
I'm Vaccinated. Why Do I Still Feel Anxious About Relaxing COVID-19 Precautions?
“The pandemic has required us to constantly consider others as potential carriers of a deadly disease,” says Joshua Coleman, PhD, a San Francisco-based psychologist and senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families. “This kind of mental activity is inherently stressful and one not easily relinquished. Our brains are wired to take those kinds of threats very seriously.”
He adds that for many of us, the virus that causes COVID-19 still feels new to us. And even though we know a lot more about it today than when it first entered our vernacular, our perception of the risk it poses to us and our loved ones is still less familiar than other health risks out there (like say, smoking or heart disease). We haven’t had as much time to come to understand and accept the risk that COVID-19 will continue to pose (including that those risks may be much lower than a year ago).
The newness and uncertainty is discomforting, Dr. Coleman says.
I Don’t Want to Be as Busy as I Was Before — Is Something Wrong With Me?
Like Johnson, many of us learned to slow down and become self-reflective in ways we hadn’t anticipated, Coleman says.
“Don’t shame yourself for wanting to return to the outside world at a slower pace,” he says. “Give yourself permission to do one or two activities and see how it goes. Sometimes, our anticipatory anxiety convinces us that the activities we’re about to engage in are far more worrisome than they actually are.”
Johnson, for example, realized that her boundaries were more porous before the pandemic and now they’re more solid. Yip says that’s beneficial, because it helps you protect what is meaningful and important, starting with your time.
How Can I Transition Into This New Normal (in a More — if Not Completely — Opened World) in a Way That’s Less Overwhelming?
Here are some tips from the experts:
Take Inventory of How You Want to Spend Your Time
A good first step is to take an inventory, Yip suggests. Think: How much do you want to hang out with your friends — versus how much you think you should? Is ramping back up on work the priority it was before the pandemic?
We didn’t just hit the “pause” button. For many people, we hit a reset. Now it’s time to think about what that might mean for you.
Set Boundaries by Saying ‘No’
“You have to set a firm boundary to protect those things that are meaningful for you, which a lot of the time means telling people ‘no,’” says Yip. For example, she recently turned down an invitation from a friend who was holding an event on a Sunday evening, which is a school night for her kids. Before the pandemic, Yip would have said yes and then dreaded a sleepy Monday morning. Now, she feels like it’s simply not worth the struggle.
“The whole world just went through a huge crisis, and it’s still going on,” she says. “Transitioning to a new normal means asking yourself: What do you really want to do?”
Pat Yourself on the Back for Being More Intentional When It Comes to How You Spend Your Time — That’s Self-Care
The fact that you’re acknowledging you want to be less social is actually a good thing, Yip adds. It means you’ve gained fresh perspective on how you want to spend your time, and who you want to see.