A switch flipped last year when, quite suddenly, nearly everything stopped. For most of us, our daily lives turned upside down. We took a huge step back, didn’t leave our homes, moved online for work and school, and were forced to find other ways to entertain ourselves. Looking back, it seems shocking how quickly the brakes were pulled.
Thirteen months later, we are moving closer to a possible end to this pandemic. With no flip to switch to move back towards normal, the process will be slower and full of questions.
Plus, the end is not guaranteed with the rise of cases across the world threatening to derail recovery.
With warmer weather and increased vaccinations, there is a strong urge to move on with our lives. But what exactly that will mean, for both psychologists and their clients, is unclear.
Returning to pre-pandemic life brings hesitation and uncertainty with it—whether from those dreading the daily commute or others unwilling now to give up extra time with family or newfound hobbies.
“All change, any big change is stressful,” said Nakia Hamlett, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of psychology at Connecticut College whose research includes complex trauma, ethnic minority and underserved populations, and clinical risk assessment and management.
“Just like the shutdown was a big change, this is another big change, and so it is going to be stressful.”
People who experience social anxiety may not be ready to put themselves back out there. Substance abuse issues may have taken their toll on others. People who have lost family or friends to the pandemic may be starting to think about planning a memorial, which can bring renewed pain.
And some people may find themselves running the gamut of reactions.
“I think we should expect that people are experiencing a full range of emotions,” said Karestan C. Koenen, Ph.D., professor psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who does research and teaches about trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Psychologists will see it in themselves and with clients, even within the same person,” Koenen said.
Reminding clients that we are all in this together and that no one really knows the best way forward can relieve some of the anxiety. It can also help to point out that it is normal to feel the stress of the past year more now than during the worst of it.
“When you are in crisis mode, you can’t process the emotions related to the crisis,” said Koenen, “so, with opening up, people are kind of allowing it or being forced to deal with feelings they had closed down, things like grief over what’s been lost.”
For therapists who have not gone back to in-person practice, how will one know when it is time? Questions around this topic arise, both from ethical and practical standpoints.
“I think this is down to personal preference,” said Hamlett. “Think about what works best for you and what is your comfort level. If you are not comfortable and anxious about the setup, it will be hard to tune in and help patients. It is good for psychologists to be clear on their own boundaries.”
Stricter rules made the decision easier.
“If everything is closed and everyone has to stay at home,” said Koenen, “in some ways, it makes it simpler. But now a lot of personal judgments and personal decisions have to be made. When I think of all the decisions that need to be made around office protocol and masks and safety, it is a big burden on the providers.”
While no one wants to repeat the past year, there may be a silver lining in that we were forced to stop and take stock. Now is the time, said Hamlett, to pay attention to what you have learned about yourself, your life, your schedule, your relationships and your goals.
“This has been an extremely difficult time for all of us, managing risks and social justice issues and, in general, the need to be home and be more reclusive or reflective,” she said. “It is also a good opportunity for practitioners and patients to think about their lifestyle. What about this was actually helpful in terms of a daily routine? What was difficult?”
It is a chance to make those changes, work more from home, spend more time with family, or make sleep and exercise a priority. For some, it may be time to go back to school, take an employment risk or step back from work.
“I see it as an opportunity for deletion and a chance for you to decide what you want your life’s handiwork to look like,” said Hamlett. “It is easy to become unbalanced and have work become the center and not have enough time for ourselves and family. What does your financial aspect need to look like, yes, but more importantly, what would make you feel more balanced?”
These lessons can also be shared with clients.
“I am hopeful my patients will give themeless that grace,” said Hamlett. “I hope people can tune in to what works for them and what doesn’t without so much of the ‘shoulds’ and ‘woulds’ and what is ‘supposed’ to happen. We can rethink all of this because we have been given that opportunity.”