Life & Leisure
Feeling a tad uncertain as the world reopens? You’re not alone

The news on the pandemic front has certainly been encouraging of late. The blitz of vaccination programs in the U.S. and abroad continues to reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases. Cities and states are lifting lockdowns, streets are bustling with pedestrians, and public gatherings are back on the calendar.

For many people, the return to a version of pre-pandemic existence can’t come fast enough. Sure, working from home is convenient, and avoiding rush-hour traffic verges on nirvana. But that’s outweighed by the simple joy of lolling in restaurants and people-watching in coffee shops.

On the flip side, however, it could take time to fully gauge how COVID-19 shifted norms, both large and small. Will companies ever return to five days a week at the office? Will handshakes be consigned to the quaint nostalgia of yesteryear?

Beyond that, the persistence of coronavirus variants, especially the Delta variant, adds a near-term wild card to the otherwise upbeat outlook. At the very least, the stubbornness of the variants has delayed the sounding of a hoped-for all-clear signal on the pandemic front.

For some people, the ongoing uncertainty means it may take a little while to adjust to the new normal — perhaps longer than they anticipated through months of lockdowns. These people may be hesitant to fully venture back into the world, either because of virus-related concerns or an underlying feeling of undefined anxiety.

Even those who are eager to actively resume socializing might be reluctant to abandon pandemic accoutrements such as masks and disinfectants. Many places no longer require face coverings, but people have spent the past 18 months applying hand sanitizer and wiping down doorknobs and counters. These practices have become something of a security blanket — habits that people may intellectually understand are no longer necessary but that still provide assurance and comfort.

So how do you get back out there if you still need some of these standbys? The first piece of advice: Proceed at your own pace. It’s OK to shy away from crowded public venues such as concerts and baseball games. And feel free to wear a mask while shopping. Many other people will be doing the same. The bottom line is that anything that eases anxiety is beneficial.

Another general rule is to embrace uncertainty. The sudden onset of the pandemic was a reminder of the futility of trying to predict the future or choreograph our reactions. Keep abreast of the news coming from the scientific community, and remember that redefining normalcy won’t happen overnight.

Earlier this year, noted psychologist Adam Grant explored the emotional impact of the pandemic in a widely read article in The New York Times. Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, described a general malaise dubbed “languishing.” He characterized it as far less severe than depression but more than a simple case of the blues. Languishing, Grant explained, appeared to be on the upswing amid the beige blur of shelter-in-place life.

This feeling could stem partly from the relatively colorless day-to-day schedules that have taken hold during the pandemic. Life is made up of routines, and COVID-19 altered the cadences of our daily lives. Even people who were able to work from home lost the healthy change of pace that comes with going out to work, eat or play. Add to that the extra duties of child care and education that many families have had to take on.

What’s the antidote? Grant advised jumping into brief, transportive activities. Focus on something simple and pleasurable, such as exercise, a cooking project or a puzzle. Getting lost in activities can bring a sense of accomplishment and even purpose. The goal is to get enough stimulation to move in a healthier direction without risking being overwhelmed.

Academic research shows that any of a number of steps can help overcome a sense of ennui. Expressing gratitude, exchanging pleasantries with others in routine settings, volunteering and performing good deeds on a small scale all can help. And don’t forget to lavish plenty of compassion on yourself. Give yourself a break if you’re carrying a few extra pounds. Harsh self-criticism only serves to worsen your mood.

Regardless of how you’re approaching this stage of the pandemic, it’s worth recognizing that this has been a time of substantial change and that the current period represents a bit of an interregnum. If the pandemic gave you some new routines, be open to adopting them in the long term. The old normal probably won’t return as it was, and the new normal is still under construction.

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