The last time Col. Terry Virts re-emerged back into society after isolation, he was flying the Soyuz TMA-15M spacecraft, striking the sky with a hurried speed. Touching down in Kazakhstan’s wilderness after a seven-month voyage at the International Space Station, the now-retired NASA astronaut felt both excited and nervous to parachute—literally—back to Earth.
“I remember I had a chicken sandwich,” Virts, a Baltimore native who grew up in Columbia, recalls of his first “normal” meal back to civilization. “I was like, ‘This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life.’” That was just one snippet of life he had to recalibrate, alongside coping with the nerves of reuniting with family and friends after a lengthy separation.
In one way or another, we are all finding our way “back to Earth” in this post-vaccination world. And while many couldn’t wait to ditch the irksome Zoom mute/unmute buttons in favor of face-to-face dinner conversation, others feel anxious and uncertain about their quest toward normalcy.
“I think there’s a lot of strange parallels,” Virts says, alluding to the excitement and edginess that come with returning to a routine. “The pep talk will be taking it slow—it’s not going to be perfect right away, but over time, it’ll get back.”
Building off of that sentiment, we talked to mental health professionals to get some earnest advice on how to stay calm and sane when merging back to pre-COVID patterns.
Socializing is like exercising, it needs a warm-up
Although humans are a gregarious species, socializing still requires practice, especially after not flexing that muscle for so long. Therefore, if you haven’t been socializing with people during the pandemic, it’s totally normal to forget how to make small talk or mingle dexterously within a crowd.
“Socializing is a skill, and we can get rusty at it,” says Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic. But not to worry—with a little time and practice, the skill can be quickly retrieved. It’s like typing or riding a bike, as Gould puts it—the more you do it, the faster and smoother it gets.
Take it one step at a time
COVID-19 restrictions might seem like they were lifted overnight, but life doesn’t have to be restored in the blink of an eye. With that said, Gould encourages people to take baby steps when reclaiming their normal life. Instead of attending a large party or big concert from the get-go, try to start with a shopping trip or a coffee date with a few close friends.
Embrace your feelings
Understand that there are no wrong feelings: “A really important component of working with feelings is to not make you feel like you should feel a particular way,” says Gould. In other words, it is perfectly okay for you to experience negative feelings during this stressful time—try to acknowledge and work through them.
Be mindful of others
Hosting a house party? Planning a brunch gathering? Go for it! But be sure to give your guests permission to say no if they don’t feel comfortable participating just yet. Remember that people are moving at different speeds when it comes to re-integrating. With that said, even if guests agree to come, make sure to give them the option to wear masks if they want, and keep the hand sanitizer at the ready. By helping your guests reduce their anxiety during an event, yours will probably get better, too.
Take good care of yourself
Let’s admit it—it’s been a challenging year-and-a-half for everyone. So, give yourself a break. Practicing mindfulness can also help you make a smooth transition out of the dreary pandemic. Gould suggests meditating or exercise. Additionally, planning ahead—i.e. making sure the parking pass is ready when returning to the office, or mentally running through what the day will be like when going to a social gathering—can also help minimize our anxiety. “Our brain doesn’t like uncertainty,” says Gould.
Pay attention to your kids
The pandemic has taken a mental toll on everyone, especially children and adolescents. “Adolescence is a time of forming and maintaining close intimate friendships,” says Dr. Sarah Edwards, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at University of Maryland School of Medicine. “During the pandemic, they weren’t allowed to do that.” Edwards suggests that parents have open conversations with their children to talk about their feelings and give them space to label their emotions.
Don’t be afraid to seek help
While most of our anxieties and distress will eventually fade with life back to normal, some may persist or get worse. The bottom line: if you are struggling, don’t be afraid to seek help from a mental health professional. In Maryland, you can call 211 Maryland—Maryland’s Helpline to receive confidential 24/7 mental support. And if you notice something is off with your kids, “the first place I always recommend is to go to their pediatricians,” Edwards says.