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Anxious About Returning to “Normal Life”? Try Emotional Vaccination

6 minute read
Kennedy is a clinical psychologist and parenting expert, and host of the podcast Good Inside with Dr. Becky

I’m feeling a bit confused this July. I can’t figure out if I am living a pandemic life, a post-pandemic life, or somewhere in between. And while I try to stay present in the moment, my mind keeps wandering to what the fall will be like. For a lot of us, September will bring a return of many elements of pre-COVID adult life: working from an office, going on business trips, attending large in-person events, sending kids back to in-person school. While we may expect these transitions to be met with relief or excitement—finally, “re-entry” and “a return to normal”!—it’s critical to prepare ourselves and our families for relief and anxiety, excitement and sadness.

After 16 months of COVID-19 in the U.S., we’ve all adapted to a very different life, one marked by restriction and hypervigilance. It will take time to unlearn our pandemic-life habits. A client in my practice shared that she had an anxiety attack when she entered her first meeting with unmasked adults. An Instagram follower just DMed me that she panicked on her first airplane flight since 2019. Here’s the thing: these reactions are uncomfortable and also normal, and the more you expect them, the more prepared you’ll be to manage the post-pandemic transition. And the more ready you are, the more ready your children will feel, too.

The first thing parents—and anyone experiencing return-to-normal fears—must do is cope with this sometimes overwhelming anxiety. You can practice this coping strategy in advance: Acknowledge-Validate-Permit or, as I shorten it, AVP. Acknowledge by noticing a feeling, validate by telling yourself why the feeling makes sense, and then give yourself permission to be having that feeling. Think to yourself: “I’m noticing I’m feeling pretty tense as I take the train into work today. That makes sense, after all, I haven’t done this in a while and the world has changed a ton since March 2020! I’m allowed to feel nervous as I make this transition.” AVPs are a critical strategy in coping with anxiety and change.

Beyond coping with anxiety, we will, of course, still have to keep moving forward. The fall will bring a return to decision making; instead of the government and medical professionals making decisions for us, it will be up to us to decide whether we want to attend a concert or allow our kids to attend a sleepover. There are no right choices here. Decision making amidst uncertainty is incredibly hard. I often think about anxiety as an equation: anxiety = uncertainty + our underestimation to cope. Most of us, especially when we have to make decisions, try to minimize uncertainty; some amount of information is helpful, but we all know those times when we go down the rabbit hole of Googling for information that we’ll never find, polling friends for their opinions in the hope that something will feel “just right,” wracking our brains for some “aha” moment that doesn’t exist. The more we try to reduce anxiety by searching for certainty, the worse our anxiety will get. Instead, remind yourself: “There is no certainty here. There’s no right. I am making the best decision I can with the information I have available at this time. That’s all I can do.” Take a deep breath and remind yourself: “I am a person who has gotten through hard moments before and I will get through this one now. I can cope with this. I can cope, I can cope, I can cope.” This is how we manage anxiety—not from the uncertainty side of the equation, but from the coping side.

Only after you’ve thought about your own coping methods, help your kids with theirs. Kids are on the verge of a major transition. Children are set up to explore the world around them—to learn by doing, touching, and moving around the world. For the past 16 months, we’ve essentially told our kids, “The world is not safe enough to explore. Stay close.” Come September, many of us will be changing our tune, sending our kids back to school buildings they haven’t seen in years. This is a big change for our kids, one that, like our transitions, is likely to be met with a mix of feelings.

This is when you can do something I call “emotional vaccination”—we prepare for future feelings and can even “pre-regulate” the feelings by surrounding them with understanding, empathy, and care. A summer conversation with your child might sound like this: “I’m thinking about how you’ll be going back to in-person school, meaning going back to your school building. Did you know that we all, kids and adults, can feel many feelings at the same time? You may feel excited… and nervous! You may feel happy… and sad. That would all make sense. After all, it’s a big change.” Over the next few weeks, wonder with your child: “I wonder what it will be like to go back to school…” and “I wonder what it will be like at drop-off that first day” and then after that, “Let’s make sure to practice a goodbye routine so we have something we know we will do, something that feels familiar to us, as you go back to school.” Separation routines are critical for kids—and parents—to feel safe during this transition, as they add predictability and routine to moments that feel unfamiliar and out of control.

Now, take a moment for yourself. Place your feet on the ground and a hand on your heart. Give yourself credit for all you’ve been through. What a year it’s been. You are so strong. Yes, the transition to fall will be tricky, and yes, we can do it. We’ve got this.

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