When President Joe Biden addressed the nation on March 11, the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus outbreak officially being declared a pandemic, I watched. When he painted the picture of a normal-ish July Fourth celebration on the national horizon, I had a reaction I certainly could not have predicted: I panicked.
Biden described an Independence Day barbecue scene, a day spent in the backyard with close family and friends. Pre-pandemic me would have loved that thought; it would have sounded like the perfect summer celebration—hamburgers and sparklers and laughter and loved ones. Mid-pandemic me, however, was flooded with worry: Will it be safe? Do we wear masks? Shake hands? Hug? How many times do I kiss someone on the cheek when I greet them? Do we share chips out of the same bowl? And what do I do when I don’t want to be there anymore? How do I leave?
I will not miss the virus. None of us will. I will not miss the stress and the fear and the sadness, the loneliness, the isolation. I will not miss the constant feeling of deep, deep loss and unending worry. But crawling out of our safety shelters into this bright new world feels scary right now; the After Times are not too far out of reach, but we don’t have a clear sense of what they will look like. They could be the Roaring Twenties, or they could be muted and masked up. The uncertainty is unsettling. While I sat safely on my couch watching the president describe our future, the word that flashed neon in my mind was change. We’ve changed so much this year, I thought. I can’t do it again.
I floated the idea of post-pandemic anxiety on my social-media pages: “Do you feel it too?” I asked my followers, and my timelines and DMs were flooded with replies. “I got sober last year and am worried about the pressure to drink,” one follower told me. “This time clarified a lot of relationships that I don’t think I need anymore and facing that gives me the heebie-jeebies,” wrote another. “The pandemic has been a bit of a security blanket,” wrote another, mentioning her status as single. “I’m struggling with a lot of intrusive thoughts about when the pandemic ends. What if it’s safe to date and meet people organically and I’m still single? What will be my excuse then? I’m worried that I’m telling myself I’m alone because everyone is right now—but what if people stop being alone and I’m still here?” Scrolling through the replies, it became clear that this feeling of unease was inevitable. We’ve been through so much collectively this year, but we’ve also been through so much alone. How could we ever have expected to pick up where we left off? It’s probably a sign of growth that many of us don’t even want to.
“An analogy I’ve been using with patients and audiences around the world is reentry from war. Although coming home is eagerly awaited by soldiers and families, the transition back to civil life is typically quite challenging. In fact, 4 out of 10 recent veterans report coming back from war to be difficult,” says Luana Marques, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Already the pandemic has taken a grave toll on our collective mental health, with a reported 40% of Americans struggling.
“For many people, adjusting to pandemic life took a significant toll mentally and physically. And, just as the new routines become familiar and accepted, new changes are on the horizon,” adds Carle Marie Manly, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear. “There is not a clear pandemic end date, and the uncertainty can bring an onslaught of new anxiety. While the end of the pandemic is good news, many people have found a certain comfort in their pandemic lifestyle; letting go of the upsides of a more inward-turned world certainly can be upsetting and anxiety inducing.”
There is also the reality that for many of us, reentry will mean a deep reckoning with all the damage that’s been done. “Now is when we really face our losses. A job you’ll never go back to. People who’ve passed away, and you knew that, but now you’ll be in the world without them,” says Aimee Daramus, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist. “Even something like the closing of a favorite restaurant that’s part of your emotional connection to friends and family. The world seems much more uncertain than it did pre-pandemic.”
Marques also highlighted the reality of loss. “Adjusting to a post-pandemic era may be particularly challenging for individuals who have lost a loved one, served on the front lines, or experienced significant mental-health symptoms during the pandemic. In the United States, these groups could make up nearly half the population.”
The reality, as I’ve come to understand it, is that reentry will be bumpy, and we need to take care of ourselves and be generous and patient with one another. “The busy, worry-oriented human mind will want to look into the future to anticipate all the possibilities—what might go wrong—and this causes both stress and anxiety when no identifiable threat or solution exists,” says Manly. “When the unproductive, busy mind becomes stuck in anxiety and worry, stop to refocus and shift attention to the present by exercising, journaling, meditating, talking with friends, or engaging in a creative activity. Over time, the overactive brain can be trained to let go of the worried, anxious states and enjoy increased calm-inducing, nonreactive moments of quiet.”
The future is uncertain, and for many of us (like me), that means worry follows next. This year has been filled with a devastating amount of bad, but as there always is, there has also been good. For me the good has been spending time, lots of time, with my husband; reevaluating what I want to do professionally; investing in healthy and meaningful friendships and relationships; and learning to value and respect my own boundaries. With change on the horizon, I worry about losing all that. I certainly don’t want to relive this year, but I don’t necessarily want to return to the patterns and priorities I had before it either.
Stepping into this new, as-yet-to-be-defined, post-pandemic society, we will enter as new versions of ourselves. Because of pandemic rules, many people in our lives probably haven’t seen these new versions of us yet, at least not without the barrier of a screen. This year of change and trauma will not disappear when the pandemic ends, and bringing the lessons and hardships of it into the future will just be a part of the journey. Eventually the After Times will just be the now—and the now can always be managed far better than the fear of it.