9 Ways to Cope If the “Post-COVID” World Is Already Stressing You Out, According to Experts
If you’re anything like me, then you’re struggling to find the energy to get out of the house. Sure, warmer weather and sunnier days might be tempting, but after a year-plus of sheltering in place at home, many people are now navigating a host of emotions about being back outside in the world for prolonged periods of time. Some have developed anxiety and depression, or their condition has worsened, and others are dealing with major burnout. As a result, taking care of both your emotional and physical wellness can seem like a mighty task. While the arrival of springtime has motivated some to partake in social activities again, it has left others stressed about returning to the outside world or too tired to even step out the door.
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Why are people feeling so drained?
For the past year, many people have been in survival mode. Living through the pandemic — as well as navigating a world rife with anti-Black and anti-Asian racism, and other inequities — has severe consequences on an individual’s physical and mental health. “Some people may be experiencing high levels of COVID exhaustion due to the heightened level of hyper-vigilance they have to endure for this prolonged period,” Dr. Kathy Wu, a licensed psychologist and an assistant professor at Widener University, told Apartment Therapy. Stepping out the door isn’t as simple as grabbing a wallet and your keys — it often requires logistics and planning, as many people with disabilities and people who care for dependents know all too well.
“In fact, going outside does not only feel like a chore, it is a chore for many people,” Dr. Wu said. “Having to plan ahead of time answers to the what, why, where, when, who, and how of leaving the home is work.” In turn, staying at home may present itself as the easier and safer option for many people of all needs and backgrounds.
However, the stress of simply surviving can be debilitating even in the comfort of your home. Dr. Nicole Villegas, a resilience coach and doctor of occupational therapy, told Apartment Therapy that individuals may neglect themselves because they’re too overwhelmed or exhausted to engage in basic human needs. “When people are presented with significant stressors, everyday routines like brushing your teeth, tidying your room, or spending time outside can be easily set aside,” they said. “The autonomic nervous system of our body reacts in the name of survival and receives the stress as cues of danger. When the stress is overwhelming, we can become trapped in inaction.”
In survival mode, “After somebody gets too tired… and their support system isn’t around to keep them safe, then they start to shut down,” Dr. Cío Hernández, Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, told Apartment Therapy. The longer the pandemic has gone on, the more people lack the energy to do basic things, such as eating meals or going outside. As a result, “getting back out there” is far from simple: As more people become vaccinated and the world moves into a “post-COVID” society, more people will need to shift their mentality away from survival mode toward reintegration.
According to Dr. Hernández, “The goal is to climb back up the ladder into connectedness, such as going outside and seeing other people.” She explained that socializing with other people in person while following the appropriate CDC guidelines, is “still going to be better for your body than continuing to be alone” because “seeing people… is a safety mechanism for us.” Additionally, going outside to simply be in the sun or exercise can benefit your mental health in the long run, from increasing your happiness to improving your ability to focus.
So how do you approach stepping outside without feeling incredibly overwhelmed the second you leave the front door? Apartment Therapy spoke with numerous mental health experts about how people can start to let the benefits of the outside world back into their lives.
Utilize your imagination.
“One way to overcome the mental hurdle of getting outside after long periods of isolation is to begin by visualizing the experience,” Dr. Villegas advised. Imagine every step of the process, from beginning to end, including sensory details like what you might hear or situations you might face. “Using your imagination to visualize what it will be like to step outside can help your nervous system prepare for the experience and then make it a reality,” they said. The exercise can help also people mentally prepare for going outside and ease any anxiety associated with the task.
Make a game plan before heading out.
“If you’re moving through overwhelm to get outside, it can be helpful to create a container for your time or activities,” Dr. Villegas said. Setting clear expectations for how long you’ll be out and what you plan on doing can soften “the fear of the unknown.”
If you plan on shopping or going out in public for a social gathering, it might be useful to call whatever establishment you’re going to to get a sense of the environment. “For example, call a store to find out when it is less busy or ask about a level of compliance,” Dr. Sanjay Nath, a psychologist and professor of graduate clinical psychology at Widener University, told Apartment Therapy. This can also apply to private social situations. You can ask more specific questions, too, such as whether the people you’re meeting plan on wearing their masks or if they’re willing to meet outside. “It is also important to realize you can always leave or shorten an outing if the conditions don’t feel right,” he said.
Turn to positive psychology methods.
A positive mindset can be life-changing for anyone, but particularly for those struggling with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. “Realistic optimism and thoughtful actions can help shape your experience of the world and, in this case, help you take that first grounded step outside,” Dr. Villegas said.
Dr. Hernández, who is also the CEO of the mental wellness app GotThis!, recommended a variety of methods to help decrease stress, including forcing yourself to laugh, hand warming, and writing in a gratitude journal. Making yourself laugh may sound silly, but according to Dr. Hernández, “Even just laughing for a minute can help change our brain chemistry for the time and make us more willing to do things that we may not have felt the courage to do prior to that minute of laughing.”
Warming your hands can also help decrease a person’s stress and anxiety. “Your blood goes to your heart and to your trunk when you’re ready to fight or flight, which leaves your hands and feet kind of cold,” Dr. Hernández explained. Holding a warm cup of tea or sitting in front of a fireplace can assist in alleviating any stress, which will, in turn, help you make better decisions.
Reconnect with yourself.
After a long period of isolation, it makes sense to prioritize reconnecting with others, but it may be even more vital to reconnect with yourself first. “One of the things that I’ve seen a lot during COVID is people are dissociating like crazy, so they just leave their bodies, so they don’t have to deal,” Dr. Hernández noted. “If you’re working with somebody that dissociates a lot, then first we need to get them back into their bodies.” Having tactile stimuli, like tossing a ball between your hands or engaging with a worry stone, can help individuals reconnect with their bodies and feel more ready to engage with the outside world.
Reach out to loved ones.
“Many people are socially motivated to make changes and so taking opportunities to spend with people we like outside of one’s home could be helpful,” Dr. Wu suggests. If you’re not comfortable seeing numerous people yet, consider reaching out to a loved one you trust.
“One of the most helpful supports for getting out of the house is to find a teammate to do it with,” Dr. Villegas said. They advise asking your trusted loved one to go out with you or even be on the phone with you while you’re out, as “they can provide reassurance and support if anything arises.”
If you can, get outside.
“A first step like a walk or outing by oneself might feel empowering since it doesn’t require others to comply and one can control one’s ideas of where to go,” Dr. Nath told Apartment Therapy. Pushing yourself to go outside for a walk can make a world of a difference in your relationship with yourself and your thoughts, too.
For example, going for a walk in the middle of a workday allows an individual to see problems from your desk in a new light. “When you’re doing any kind of physical activity like walking or running or riding a bike or taking a stroll in the fresh air, that keeps multiple parts of our brains going at the same time,” Dr. Hernández explained. In turn, you can “make a new relationship with distressing material that has happened during the day.”
Taking that first step can also aid in changing your relationship with the outside world. “Physical activity not only helps us stay fit but also results in the release of what are considered ‘happy hormones’ that help us mentally and puts us in a better mood,” Dr. Delene Musielak, a board-certified pediatrician, told Apartment Therapy. The more a person engages in physical activity outside, the more likely they will begin to develop a more positive relationship with going outside again.
If you can’t go outside right now, find ways to bring outdoor elements into your home.
“For people who are unable to leave their home due to mental and physical health or because they are family caregivers, it’s important to interact with the outdoors in ways that fit their interests,” Dr. Villegas said. “There is no one way to be outside or experience nature.” They advised incorporating natural elements into your home to engage your senses. You can achieve this by cracking open some windows to create natural airflow, playing a video of nature sounds, or even bringing in “trimmings of lavender, pine, or a handful of soil.”
Acknowledge your concerns and fears.
“It is so important to acknowledge that this has been a time of upheaval for so many that is multi-determined, from social and political unrest, to COVID, to loss of life and rituals, to changes in finances, work, family structure, and child care,” Dr. Nath said. “While there are some similarities to individuals’ experiences, there are also important differences in social isolation resources, and suffering that impact our ability to cope.”
Dr. Nath advised practicing self-compassion and seeking out a community that may relate to your struggles. “Many folks turn to self-reliance, and for me as a psychologist, it is necessary to note that other-reliance and caring for others are both important aspects of psychological health,” he said. Connecting with others who share your struggles can also be a helpful reminder that you are not alone in your concerns.
According to Dr. Villegas, “If people are not feeling physically safe, but continue to go outside, it can be important to identify their boundaries so that there is a clear point at which to respond, or change their environment.” Setting clear boundaries for your safety is a proactive step, which may help you feel empowered in whatever decisions you make.
Don’t be afraid to seek help.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for overcoming any anxiety and exhaustion related to the pandemic. However, if your quality of life is severely impacted by depression or anxiety, Dr. Nath advised seeking out professional care. “Given the widespread adoption of telehealth, perhaps connecting to a therapist to talk through these issues might be helpful for folks if that is an option,” Dr. Nath said.
For those who have developed a fear of going outside and contracting or spreading coronavirus, it’s important to note that your concerns are valid. But if you are feeling debilitated by your fear, it’s also important to seek out professional treatment for assessing your feelings and learning coping mechanisms to manage your anxieties.