As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out across the U.S. and states begin lifting various restrictions, many have begun thinking and dreaming of life post-COVID. And while the thought of gathering with family and friends again, traveling and getting back to loved activities can feel joyful, many are surprised to also feel stressed and anxious about the “return to normal.”

Soo Jeong Youn, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, discusses a few scenarios that can be a source of stress, and what people can do to help make the transition back into post-COVID life a bit easier.

COVID-19: Stressful or Traumatic?

While the pandemic has been a global event that has had an unimaginable impact on everyone’s life, not everyone has had the same pandemic experience. In some cases, the pandemic has been a source of trauma.

“A traumatic event is defined as actual or threatened death or serious injury by the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition),” says Dr. Youn. “Depending on what your role is, what your job is, and how the pandemic has impacted you and your loved ones, you may have been exposed to a traumatic event.”

“But the important thing is that, regardless, everyone has been exposed to incredible stressors over the past year. We know that we're going to be dealing with long-term mental health consequences. The acute phase may be over, but we're going to be working through the chronic consequences for a while. Experiencing mixed reactions as we transition back is to be expected.”

Dealing with the Emotional Ebbs and Flows of COVID

These mixed reactions can be both situational and cyclical.

“Some people may have occasional worries that are contained to certain aspects of their life, or may be time limited” Dr. Youn says. “The beginning stage of constructing a 'new normal' is a period of transition. As we're building that new normal, there might be some worries and anxiety, but they dissipate as we get used to it all.”

For example, says Dr. Youn, being in larger groups of people or returning back to the office after more than a year of isolating, can be hard, especially if vaccination status is unknown, but may get easier over time. In other instances, transitioning back may feel fine, but then you may experience stress later. This is especially true for parents who may enjoy a less restrictive summer with their kids, but begin to feel anxious about their child’s personal safety, whether they’ve fallen behind academically or if their social connections with their friends have suffered as they head back to school.

It is important that as people go through this transition, they pay attention to how they are feeling and get help if needed says Dr. Youn.

“If a person notices that after a month or so there is no change whatsoever in how they are feeling, and they are experiencing very heightened levels of anxiety that is impacting their day-to-day functioning, their mood or their family, then they may want to consider talking to a mental health professional, especially if it is affecting multiple areas in their life.”

Gathering Again: How to Do So Safely

Warm weather and a higher percentage of vaccinated people means increased activity, which can cause concern for personal safety. For those who feel some anxiety in gathering again with people, Dr. Youn has some tips:
  • Start slow: If you know that in a month’s time you’ll begin socializing with larger groups of people, meet with one person now and slowly grow your circle. Follow all COVID safety protocols like distancing and wearing masks, but begin interacting with people at a pace that is right for you to help lessen anxiety
  • Know and maintain boundaries: Friends and family may have different comfort levels with different activities than you may have. In these cases, it is important to know your boundaries and clearly communicate them. These boundaries may shift depending on the situation and relationship, but the hope is that you are with people who will understand and come to an agreement on safety
For frontline and essential workers, increased activity can bring up trauma from the past year. “Data show that mental health needs in the U.S. have increased during the pandemic. For health care providers, this has been much higher. We would expect that there is going to be a lot of mixed reactions and feelings as things open up,” says Dr. Youn. “This group may be thinking “I'm not ready. I don't want to do this. Are we ready for this as a population?” This is all normal. Communicating with friends and family can help a person feel supported and validated, but if feelings of stress and anxiety don’t lessen, it may make sense to see someone who can help.”

COVID-19: A Gift of Time

For some, COVID-19 was a gift of time where they thrived. A slow-paced, flexible lifestyle may have helped them focus on themselves or family or work on individual goals that they didn’t have time for beforehand.

Dr. Youn offers advice on how to continue thriving when the pace picks up again: “Understanding first what were the components that were really helpful in succeeding under the circumstances is going to be important so that we can then figure out how to maximize those factors in the day-to-day. Now the trick is to figure out how to recreate those structures during the transition and build them into a normal life.”

A source of stress for others is the feeling that they did not use the COVID downtime in a productive way. While this may feel like a failure for some, Dr. Youn is clear: surviving the last year is a triumph.

“We cannot minimize the emotional and physical toll that the pandemic had on us,” she says. “It is going to be immeasurable for a long time. So whatever we did to truly survive the last year cannot and should not be dismissed. We have done everything that we can and we're here and wanting to rebuild a new future, whatever that may look like. That is a huge triumph.”