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Last March, we were dropped into a time of challenge and chaos. No one knew what was coming next, or how long the uncertainty would last. But, as human beings do, we adapted.
In many ways, we slowed down. We carved out time for meaningful calls and Zooms with loved ones and took long, masked walks outside. In other ways, we sped up, moving forward with projects we’d put off for years or starting the next chapter sooner than expected. Our expectations around work and social situations took a new shape to fit in with the new times.
Now we’re in another new phase — the transition between what became the norm during the pandemic and what will be the norm as we slowly return to some version of pre-pandemic life. And although people may be excited about some aspects of resuming life as it was before March 2020 (and anxious about others), it’s important to acknowledge that times of transition can be more challenging than what came before or what will come next.
The reason: They require more effort. We don’t just “endure” transition like we do an unexpected, forced change. Rather, we are required to make choices to manage the transition and come out well on the other side of it.
For some of my clients, the return of social events and the possibility of seeing people in person are forcing them to make choices, often by asking tough questions. What feels safe? What seems like the highest priority? How does one choose between the array of possibilities, tempered by the worry that it’s really not that safe?
For one client — let’s call her Sue — the lockdown was a relief in many ways. With stay-at-home orders in place, she no longer had to explain that she was too tired to go out or didn’t feel well enough to visit her mother. The expectations were eliminated, and so were her choices. But as society transitions back to pre-pandemic normalcy and expectations return, she feels conflicted over how to spend her time and limited energy.
Another client, “Joe,” also enjoyed having a restricted calendar over the past year. He didn’t feel obligated to socialize. Now with the doors opening to the world, he feels overwhelmed and exhausted by the choices. Psychologists describe this as “cognitive overload,” a mental state that occurs when you have to process too much information at a given time.
But as strenuous as transition periods may be, they also provide us with the opportunity to rethink our priorities.
There is no rule saying you have to go back to the way things were. You can make choices that serve your new priorities and new way of life. Doing so requires and courage and honesty — with yourself and others — but it can be done.
Take Sue. She wanted to prioritize rest and relaxation, and made a change to do so. She told her family that she was looking forward to an in-person visit. But rather than going every week as she had before the pandemic, she would only be going once a month.
Similarly, Joe too wanted less “running around” — as he termed it — and “decided not to get pulled back into all the groups” he had been a part of before the pandemic.
In addition to courage and honesty, making these changes requires kindness and reflection. You have to stop and reflect on the past year. From there, you have to decide what parts of your pre-pandemic life you want to jump back into, and which ones you want to alter.
If you’re feeling anxious about this transition back into “normalcy,” try to think about it as an opportunity to restructure your life into a shape that fits who you are now. Not automatically to pick up former obligations and routines, but to carefully choose how you want to spend your time and energy; to observe what gives your life meaning and how to make those experiences a priority.
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