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How to return to ‘normal’

Navigating new social etiquettes and reentering social situations after more than a year of the pandemic isn't going to be a simple transition. Carolina clinical psychology professor Jonathan Abramowitz shared advice for easing the transition.

Jon Abramowitz standing outside near trees.
Carolina clinical psychology professor Jonathan Abramowitz poses for a portrait under the arbor in Coker Arboretum. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

With vaccination rates around the country increasing, pandemic restrictions lifting and workplaces reopening, society is beginning to slowly return to the way it was before March 2020.

But with that return of “normal” comes uncertainty and anxiety about safety, navigating new social etiquettes and reentering social situations.

Carolina clinical psychology professor Jonathan Abramowitz says those feelings and the challenges that come along with them are completely normal.

“We’ve been out of our regular routines for the last year, and you can’t expect to just go back and just have everything be straightforward and not stressful,” says Abramowitz, who leads the UNC Anxiety and Stress Lab and studies obsessive-compulsive disorder, health anxiety, anxiety disorders and phobias.

As we all tackle the challenges of “returning to normal” and face a new wave of uncertainty, Abramowitz shared advice for easing the transition.

Be ready for the stress

Stress and anxiety will be part of the return to normal. There’s no way around it, Abramowitz says. The first step to overcoming it is simply being prepared for it.

“Don’t fool yourself into thinking this is going to be easy, and you’re going to go back and not feel any stress. Expect the stress. Be prepared,” Abramowitz says.

Just as we experienced in March of 2020, transitions to anything new — particularly a new routine or life situation — are stressors. And with stressors come anxiety and stress responses. But Abramowitz warns to not let those things deter you. They’re entirely normal and manageable.

“Anxiety is not a bad thing,” he says. “Nowadays, we try to protect ourselves and others from feeling anxious as if it was dangerous. But actually, anxiety is your fight-or-flight response. It’s not bad or dangerous — you need it for survival. Anxiety and stress are what your body does naturally when you’re faced with change, and they’re entirely normal in a situation like this.

“There’s no such thing as too much anxiety. That’s a misnomer. Anxiety can’t harm you. It just feels really uncomfortable.”

Accepting those feelings for what they are is part of what will help you find your comfort levels and smooth the transition.

“Don’t try to fight it. Just go with it and lean into it,” Abramowitz says. “Eventually, just like when most of us managed to settle into a COVID routine last year, we’re going to figure out a post-COVID routine. It might take some time, and it’s not going to be easy all the time, but we’re going to get there.”

Take care of your mental health by taking care of your physical health

Even when you know it’s coming, managing that stress and anxiety isn’t always easy. To best tackle the incoming stress, Abramowitz suggests focusing on your physical health.

That means making sure you’re getting enough sleep and making time in your schedule to exercise, even if it’s just a quick walk. Abramowitz also recommends keeping an eye on your diet. When people are stressed, they tend to fall back on their comfort foods instead of eating a healthy, balanced diet.

“Comfort foods tend to have a lot of sugar in them, a lot of carbohydrates, and they can lead you to feel more lethargic,” he says. “You feel that sugar rush, but then your sugar levels drop, and that just makes you feel more stressed, and you don’t sleep well at night.”

But keep an eye on your stress levels. If it’s seriously impacting your life, you don’t need to manage it on your own.

“If you’re having trouble functioning in your various roles in life — whether it’s at work or at home or relationships — then seeking help is important,” Abramowitz says. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the best form of treatment for anxiety and stress that’s getting in the way of your life.”

Remember that you’re resilient 

The uncertainty of the transition back to normal is sure to be worrisome for many people, so you’re not the only one going through it. Even though everybody’s experience will be different, we’re all dealing with the same effects.

It’s a similar experience we faced in March 2020, and it’s important to remember that as challenging as things were back then, you adapted. Give yourself credit for being resilient and remind yourself that if you could do it once, you’ll be even better prepared to do it again.

While the feelings of stress and anxiety can be intense at times, Abramowitz says to remember that you’re capable of powering through to get to the other side — just like you’ve done before.

“Life is not always easy or fair, and sometimes we all face stressful circumstances,” he says. “I know that many people suffered a great deal because of the pandemic. But anyone reading this somehow managed to get through it and can now say ‘Look what I was able to do’ even though it was unpleasant or even life changing. There was life before the pandemic, and there will be life after.”