The way you return to your pre-pandemic life would likely depend on what has happened and what has changed during the pandemic.
For my wife and me, the pandemic started abruptly on March 15, 2020. As we were gathering to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday in Argentina, we were told that national frontiers were closing and were advised to return home right away. That very evening we were on an airplane.
Two weeks later, I was working remotely, and I am still doing so. My wife is a neonatologist who cares for newborn children, and babies kept coming, so her work-life remained fairly similar, except for all the precautions and meetings through videoconference. Our daughter is a medical resident who had occasional emergency room duty, which exposed her to infection. Our son is a neurologist and had the grim responsibility to suit up almost like an astronaut to determine if COVID-19 patients were brain dead. Our children’s high exposure risks increased our concern for their wellbeing.
What has happened during the pandemic is not only what affected us personally but also how we have been impacted by what has happened to those around us. The pastors I work with shared their anxiety about an exponential increase in funerals and the potential exposure from the gathering of those grieving, while at the same time having to cope with the limitations in providing consolation imposed by the need to maintain social distance.
Many of my patients became infected, some with lingering symptoms even until today, losing their jobs and fearing infecting their loved ones. A friend who runs a large medical system has had to work long and difficult hours, recruiting non-intensive care physicians to increase the pool of providers and expanding, several times, the intensive care unit at his facility. For some people, the losses have been immense and with very difficult goodbyes.
The pandemic has crept into almost everything in our lives, individually and in our communities. Where I live, crime rates have gone up substantially. Many businesses have been boarded up. The pandemic has also generated small, almost invisible cracks in the social fabric, changing the rules of social engagement. “Our social muscles have atrophied,” author Priya Parker observed.
And now, as the infection rates have decreased significantly in some parts of the world (and are expected to continue falling as the vaccination rollout reaches more people), how do we do the “reopening” with family and friends we have not seen in person? How do we “do” church? How do we transition back to inhabit the social world we once knew? Do we shake hands, hug, and kiss if we don't know if persons have been vaccinated? Do we wear masks and keep them six feet apart? What if I feel like sneezing? Is it time to change our routine?
The questions go from the practical and mundane to more profound questions about our lives. The pandemic has spurred a “recalibration of priorities and what matters,” British psychoanalyst Josh Cohen comments. All the restrictions created more time for us to be by ourselves, be more introspective, and evaluate the depths of relationships and even the direction of our lives. “Is this the place where I want to raise my children?” “Who are my real friends?” “Does my family really care?” “What kind of life do I really want?”
The way you return to your pre-pandemic life would likely depend on what has happened and what has changed during the pandemic. While many have extraordinary resilience, many others struggle. Some of the struggles may take one of these forms:
- Have you developed “cave syndrome”? The term is not an actual medical diagnosis. It is being used to describe something like “the queasiness at the thought of a grocery-store trip on one end and full-blown social withdrawal on the other.” It is feeling slightly out of sorts in situations that were natural before. It goes from a felt sense of uncertainty and timidity to real anxiety. For more than a year, we have been told not to socialize in groups, as not much was known about the virus, so we honed a different set of habits.
- Are you feeling anxious? Surveys conducted independently by the American Psychological Association1 and the Centers for Disease Control2 in the United States document that approximately 50 percent of the population feel “uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction” and not “comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic”; and these feelings are prevalent even among those fully vaccinated. “The percentage of adults with recent symptoms of an anxiety or a depressive disorder increased from 36.4 percent to 41.5 percent” since August 2020.3 If you are feeling anxious, you are not alone, and it is not unusual given the present circumstance.
- Are you coping with “long COVID-19” symptoms? It is estimated that about 10 percent of those diagnosed with COVID 19 develop lingering symptoms, including fatigue, muscle weakness, sleep disturbance, “brain fog,” loss of taste and smell, and other neurological and psychiatric complications. Some develop symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder not from the virus but the experience of the illness.4
Let me offer a few suggestions as you re-enter post-pandemic life:
- Re-entering can be thought of as a transition similar to how it feels when you start a new job or become a parent for the first time. To feel uneasy, even slightly anxious, is to be expected. This is more likely among those with an introverted temperament, as they are coming out of the “cave.” It is neither irrational nor illogical to feel this way. Many of my introvert patients have “enjoyed” having a socially acceptable reason to stay at home. Don’t take it to extremes, and pace your re-entry. If you are an introvert, be gentle with yourself. Your strengths may not lie in the social arena, but cultivate a way to connect in meaningful ways.
- If you struggle with debilitating depression or anxiety, do not hesitate to reach out for help from trusted friends, pastors, or professionals. You may find it helpful to implement the steps Jesus outlined in Matthew 6:25-34: observe nature in detail; cultivate an experience of trust in God’s loving care for you; do not believe every worrying thought that crosses your mind; set limits on how much time you dedicate to worrying; and develop goals for your life that are aligned with the values of the kingdom of heaven.
- Follow the advice of medical professionals. This is particularly true if you have long COVID-19 symptoms. Few places provide proper whole-person care where psychological and spiritual care are given more than a token recognition. If you need it, you may need to be proactive in procuring it. Most health providers will recommend that you get vaccinated when you have a chance — both those who hesitate to be vaccinated and those who do not make their decision based on trust. If you hesitate, talk to your physician, and inform yourself from trustworthy sources. I found it helpful in making my decision by talking to my wife and children, who are health providers. But I also did some reading of my own about how the vaccine was developed (coronaviruses have been around for a long time; the vaccine developers did not start from scratch in March 2020, but built on many years of prior research); about the trials (among the largest numbers of individuals involved), which were rigorous and the effectiveness rates compared to previous vaccines (these are much better). It was important for me to be a part of the community that supports my family and friends. Additionally, I wanted to have my children less exposed in their work. I wanted my health professional friends to “get a life.” I did not want to narrowly focus on
the death rates, ignoring the impact of the virus on a much larger percentage with long COVID-19 effects or the perils of a health system near collapse. For some of us, being vaccinated makes it more comfortable to re-enter our pre-pandemic lives.
- Recalibrate your priorities. Matthew 6:33 invites us to focus on placing the values of the kingdom of God above all other considerations. This may take many forms depending on your life’s situation and God’s call to you. The new Sabbath School quarterly “Rest in Christ” could not have come at a better time. It will help you see the roots of restlessness where, when, how, and with whom to find rest, as well as the ultimate purpose and meaning of resting in Jesus. Resting in Christ will help you deal with uncertainty and fear.
- Know what you are made for. In previous posts, I commented on the potential psychological disruption brought by the pandemic, the impact of the pandemic fatigue, and tips on adapting to the “new normal.” Yes, you were not made for fear or to live in a cave. You were not made for “social” distancing. You were not made to live in lockdown. You were not made to see your family through Zoom. But neither were you made for yourself or to just return to pre-pandemic life without having learned anything from the experience. We are made for far more than our pre-pandemic life; we were made for God and for “life abundant” (John 10:10). However, for now, we live “through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13: 12) while we wait for the ultimate “real normal,” for which God created all of us. We are made for eternity!
Carlos Fayard, PhD, is an associate professor of psychiatry and director of the WHO Collaborating Center in the Department of Psychiatry, Loma Linda University School Medicine, and author of Christian Principles for the Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy (Westbow Press, 2017).
The original version of this commentary was posted on the Inter-American Division news site.
1. American Psychological Association, Stress in America: One Year Later, a New Wave of Pandemic Health Concerns, n.d., https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/sia-pandemic-report.pdf.
2. Anjel Vahratian, Stephen J. Blumberg, Emily P. Terlizzi, and Jeannine S. Schiller, “Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, August 2020–February 2021,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 70, no. 13: 490-494. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm7013e2external icon
3. Rita Rubin, “As Their Numbers Grow, COVID-19 ‘Long Haulers’ Stump Experts,” JAMA 324, no. 14: 1381-1383. doi: 10.1001/jama.2020.17709.
4. Maxime Taquet, Sierra Luciano, John R. Geddes, Paul J. Harrison “Bidirectional Associations between COVID-19 and Psychiatric Disorder: Retrospective Cohort Studies of 62,354 Cases in the USA,” The Lance Psychiatry 8, no. 2 (2021): 130-140. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30462-4.