Brain COVID-19 (coronavirus) Featured Mental health

Anxious about ‘returning to normal’ during the pandemic? You’re not alone.

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Written by Jennifer Palisoc

While many have been looking forward to some kind of return to ‘normal’ throughout the pandemic, post-lockdown anxiety is also a reality as centres gradually re-open.

Drs. Karen Wang and John Teshima, youth psychiatrists in the Hurvitz Brain Sciences Program at Sunnybrook, share insight into why a return to pre-pandemic life can be stressful, and offer strategies for children, youth, and adults to help cope with the change.

Is it ‘normal’ to feel anxious about ‘getting back to normal’?

Dr. Teshima:  Anxiety is a normal response to a stressful situation that still has uncertainty. Each person will have their own individual response to re-opening, and anxiety will differ from person to person. It could be stress around what to expect in the future or changes in workplace or social situations. It may take some time and patience to adjust to changes as the pandemic continues to evolve. 

Dr. Wang: Individuals may be feeling anxious because it is difficult right now to clearly envision what the future holds.  This may also be due to uncertainty around the number of variant cases.  Having been through re-opening and lockdown situations over this past year, people may not have the same sense of optimism as before.

Why is there a feeling of anxiety even as people have been looking forward to ‘getting back to normal’?

Dr. Wang: Over the course of the pandemic, people have become more accustomed to working from home, studying online, and becoming more insular in terms of their relationships.  Any transition, even if it is ‘back to normal’ involves change, and change can be anxiety-provoking.

Change can also be downright difficult for many individuals.  I also think that there is a question as to whether we will ever return to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’.  The sense that there may never be a return to our preconceived notion of normal may also be precipitating people’s fear and worry.

How can individuals cope with these feelings?

Dr. Teshima:  There are many healthy ways to cope with stress and anxiety.  Recreational activities provide enjoyment and a useful distraction from stressful issues of the moment.  Spending social time with friends and family — safely — can provide support, enjoyment and reduce isolation.  Exercise can both improve mood and provide a healthy outlet for stress.  Spending time in nature can be relaxing.  Listening to music can be relaxing.

Dr. Wang:  It is important to acknowledge and normalize one’s sense of anxiety or other distressing emotions.  We are still living through unprecedented times and there is no definitive guidebook on how to best cope during a pandemic! Increasing physical and social activity gradually and setting achievable goals also creates a sense of momentum and confidence that can help counteract the natural boredom or listlessness that may have set in this year.

What kind of coping strategies are there for children and youth as we ‘return to normal’?

Dr. Teshima:  Similar to adults, being active and taking part in enjoyable activities can help children manage their anxiety or fear. A parent can validate a child’s concern by saying they understand why the child may have that concern. It is also important for parents to encourage their children to talk about their worries and concerns about a ‘return to normal.’  The parent can then support the child in using coping strategies that best fit that child.  Maybe playing a game would be helpful.  Maybe walking the dog helps to ease concerns.  Maybe a hug is what is needed.

Dr. Wang:  Children are incredibly resilient and the vast majority have adapted to the pandemic restrictions. As opportunities for more social interactions increase, it may help to go through role playing exercises to help young children think through their concerns and problem solve different situations.

Older children may have become more restricted in their activities and adapted to only virtual interactions.  Encourage them to move offline to non-virtual means of communication and socialization.  Be patient with your children and teenagers as they make this transition.  For older teens who are struggling, show them that it is acceptable to ask for help.  Provide them with the proper problem-solving tools to work through issues that arise rather than avoiding them.

What can be we do to adapt to the changes ahead and more opening across the city and country?

Dr. Teshima:  Anticipating and accepting complexities and challenges can often be helpful in coping with them.  Be prepared for changes in course, including reversals, because the situation and information will constantly evolve.

Dr. Wang:  It can also help to maintain consistency and a sense of structure and familiarity in your life. For some individuals, this might mean setting the same day to meet up with friends or family, going for a hike each weekend, or playing a summer sport.  Whatever the activity is, try not to abandon the routines and rituals that have sustained you during this past year. Incorporating them into your everyday schedule can help provide some stability as life during the pandemic continues to evolve.

Mental health resources for coping during COVID-19 from Sunnybrook experts

If you need help in an emergency please call 911 or visit your local emergency department. If you’re feeling like you’re in crisis or need somebody to talk to, please know that help is also available through community resources:

  • Find a local crisis resource at sunnybrook.ca/gethelp
  • Crisis Services Canada
  • Phone: 24-hour, toll-free 1-833-456-4566
  • Text: 45645 (4:00 pm – midnight Eastern Time)
  • Kids Help Phone
    • Phone: 24-hour, toll-free, 1-800-668-6868
    • Text: 686868 (24 hours, 7 days a week)

About the author

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Jennifer Palisoc

Jennifer Palisoc is a Communications Advisor at Sunnybrook.

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