This is hard, what we are trying to do. The pandemic continues to rage, but adults live in a post-vaccination world. Kids are returning to school; their parents are returning to work. We’re all socializing more. We should be happier, right? But in the offices of the group psychotherapy practice I founded, people of all ages aren’t sure what chapter we’re in, or how to feel about it. How do we make this kind of comeback?
The therapists in our practice often discuss why returning is so hard for so many people. Never before have I genuinely not been able to predict what is a positive event for some or a negative for others. The psychology of returning is complicated.
This thing we’re doing—this returning—is more than recovering from the depression of so much loss, the anxiety of an uncertain future, and physical changes exacerbated by stress, insomnia, or substance use. It is time to discuss how we should all venture out from where we’ve been.
Returning to our lives, we’ve been told, will be returning to a world that will never be the same. Did you hear the year “2022” back when this started and think that was incomprehensibly far away? Now our new best friends, those wise epidemiologists, will be right again. We’ll be lucky if next year we can look back and say: It was the summer of 2021 when we began to return. When we started returning not knowing when it would feel as normal as it could be. Because when we’ve returned to things in the past, we could better see the future.
But now. Is this the new normal?
“No, it will be when kids get vaccinated.”
“We’ll feel normal when we go to a concert again.”
“Life will be back when I fly somewhere without worry.”
It is my opinion that when we think of returning to something, there is memory built into it, even though “returning” in our minds mostly considers the future. We may not have been here before, exactly (as my second grader reminds me of his new classroom), but the element of having been there, done that before is strong. It biases us for good, because familiar routines often have positive memories associated with them. We are primed from experience to know what to expect in a classroom or back at the gym or a baseball game, and this is a huge relief after so many months of uncertainty.
But it also biases us for struggle—we have to hustle ourselves and family out into the world again to things that were previously dreaded, like commutes and cases of the Mondays. It is genuinely weird to be back to familiar places that are the same and different all at once. When I returned to my therapy office this year, it was like visiting a time machine. Bringing the present-day self to a version of the past is part of the psychology of returning.
So how can we struggle less against this new change, which at one time we’d all been hoping to go through? We must face some truths about this pandemic pause button.
It is time to return to deciding
The pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing troubles, and the time has come to decide how to deal with them.
Managing uncertainty has put us into a different mindset; the human mind tries to solve uncertainty with routine, which is why my advice in April 2020 started with these anxiety-calming basics. But if you had trouble sleeping, it likely got worse. If you needed others to help motivate you to exercise, show up to work, or socialize, you were likely left to your own efforts. If you ate too much, or drank too much, or worked too much, or had power struggles with a partner, they all likely increased. The pandemic was a spotlight into the cracks in ALL the systems.
It is time to address them.
Here’s the good news: The very fact that we can consider returning means that some essentials are back in working order. This leaves room for a reckoning of what else is important, what we actually want to return to, and what we’ve been putting off. Much of therapy works this way. People come in for an urgent problem that can often be solved with basic coping strategies…and then, inevitably, the deeper work follows. We are at the more insightful stage of the pandemic now; we need to do the deeper work. What needs attention? What will you return to?
We all delayed dealing with a lot. This could have been a skipped visit to the dentist or finding a speech therapist for a child or having a reckoning with an important relationship. We may have postponed couples therapy until we could afford it or get available time (and a private space) to meet. We stayed in jobs and homes and other life situations past their prime because making a move was risky in one way or another.
We put off a lot. That’s what we’re returning to: A lot of choices, and more decisions than we are used to. Of course, our choices look different than two years ago. But they are there in a way that they weren’t a year ago.
We need to make space for grief
Returning from a global pandemic is everybody’s crash course in grief. Even if you and your neighbor dealt with COVID-19 differently (including not dealing with it at all), that’s part of grief, too (denial! anger! bargaining with risk and public recommendations!).
What is important to the psychology of returning—as it relates to our collective grief process—is that you won’t return to everything all at once, even though you lost many things all at once in quarantine. As difficult as it was to enter quarantine and have life screech to a halt, it was mentally easier to shut down than to return. This is because we largely shut down all together: waved at neighbors in the street, wiped down our groceries, commiserated about Zoom life, and applauded essential workers. It’s like everyone was taking the same class, Global Pandemic 101.
But returning is different. Some of us worked in person the entire time, or got vaccinated months ahead of others. If you have kids under 12 in your house, your return still has a big milestone ahead when they are eligible for vaccination. As I write, three people I know are playing tennis without their usual fourth because he died of COVID-19. The familiar lines of a tennis court may have been there the whole time, but it is changed all the same.
One response to grief is to try to gather what we’ve lost, but even that has its ups and downs. Like a warped video game, we want to gain as much back as possible. Big win when you got your vaccine. Big loss when your intended wedding still couldn’t be held. Big win when you took a vacation. Big loss when your friends with kids not eligible for vaccination couldn’t join you. Some of us returned to campus and the office and summer camps in July. Then we masked up again in August. Clients tell me that the early summer months contrasted with the new Delta chapter of the pandemic were like whiplash.
Learn to live with past and future side by side
Returning isn’t the same for everyone.
Teens and kids may do better at reconnecting with friendships on the way out of the pandemic. They will need help being seen again, but their developmental stage means they are primed to be more sociable and less connected to the way things used to be. They have fewer hangups!
Adults, by contrast, may be so exhausted from holding everything together that socializing and beginning new things may be less of a priority. Indeed, a recent survey also showed 49% of adults feel hesitant about returning to in-person life.
For adults, returning is often bittersweet because of our more fully formed memories of the before-times, and the change reflected in reality now. We visit wild places that are altered by global warming and attend family reunion with missing members, but still we go back. Quite simply, adults have more of a past. That can feel like a liability—but we can turn it into a strength.
What this means about the psychology of returning is that we’ve left pieces of ourselves everywhere, and returning touches each of these points and awakens us to them. Have you ever been jolted back in time by a certain smell? Have you noticed that there is one day that reminds you that autumn is on the way?
A lot of us see promise in fresh starts, clean slates, resolutions, and willpower. But I’ve been learning over the years that to make real progress, there need not be a new beginning. Especially in the early months, when just existing in your new world feels like it must be some sort of accomplishment.
In order to evolve from where you are now, you have to bring with you where you’ve been. I believe that closure, and leaving the past behind, is a myth that puts pressure on the comeback and deceives us and others. This can mean learning to live with sadness. It is part of your returning, another layer to who you are, and has given you humility and capacity. Let feelings be with you when they arrive. They will ebb and flow.
Positive predictions about returning
Sadness and other negative emotions have a place in returning, but only a place. In order to successfully return, we need to make space in our brains away from all of the dread and uncertainty that have been present throughout the pandemic. We need to fill it with possibility, engagement, initiation.
Returning from the pandemic certainly will show that some positives have come out from it. The pandemic has been a filter for many people about what is risk-worthy, what is important, and even what we’d like to keep from this unusual time. Maybe it will be new routines you established during quarantine, including giving things up. It’s possible your social circle has been tailored to fit a life closer to home (new friendships with neighbors or a comfort level with socializing around home). And you will likely feel gratitude for any certainty that comes your way, never taking things for granted again.
The psychology of returning means you can feel the strange optimism that comes from living through a disaster: glad to be alive for a new chapter, aware of the cracks in the system and your life and the opportunity to work on them, as overwhelming as they may be.
It helps to process your feelings with safe people—those who can handle your feelings, understand they are in the context of your life’s lowest moment, and simply be with you without impulse to change, argue, or take offense. If you haven’t found these gems of people in your personal life, find a therapist or, at the very least, a community, even an online one, that shares your experience.
Your support team knows that just because you are occasionally back to work/tennis/laughing doesn’t mean that sadness is far away—and as a member of someone else’s team, that’s a good thing for you to remember.
I have my own personal reminders about returning. Perhaps they will help you, too.
- Two steps forward, one step back. As someone who wants to believe only in progress, this saying drives me nuts. But I won’t be a perfectionist. Things are better this August than they were last August.
- Read the news before noon, and try for perspective about what matters. When the wind changes direction and the smoke from California’s forest fires starts blowing in the office, I change into an N95 and keep working.
- I will push myself to keep getting out there. We all have different risk factors to take into account. Maybe you’re part of a vulnerable group, or you live with people not eligible for vaccination. But you can still do many things as a vaccinated adult, and you should.
- Start small, and when it seems difficult, make it smaller until you can start.