By Judith E. Lipson, M.A., LPC
I talk to a lot of people – friends, colleagues, and clients – and I watch the patterns of conversation. Over the last few months, we have talked a lot about the shift away from social isolation toward finding ease in returning to a more active way of life (while maintaining masks, hygiene, and proper distancing as recommended by the CDC). Initially, these conversations were to provide preparation for when that time would come.
Recently, more adults have received their COVID-19 vaccines, and students and staff have returned to school. These conversations have now taken on more of a timely need and an urgency.
Not surprisingly, a number of people are delighted to return to activities and events that are more reminiscent of times pre-pandemic. Others have expressed that they have felt quite comfortable with some, or many, aspects of the life that they have experienced over this last year and are struggling to make the shift.
This article is written for this latter group. If you are one of these people who looks back at this last year with a partial or complete thought of: please don’t mess with me now! then this article is for you. If you have always (or are now) struggling with general anxiety or social anxiety, this is for you. If you are not personally resonating with this concept, I still encourage you to read it so you can better understand your students, colleagues, friends, and family members. I’ve also included some tips to help you or them to venture out.
WHAT WE ARE EXPERIENCING
No two people are the same so not everyone will describe it the same way, but here is what I’ve been hearing, and it may not be what you expect. What you probably think is that folks are scared of contracting COVID-19, but actually most people do NOT quote their concern of developing COVID as their primary reason for their reluctance to venture back to activities.
Actually, what I find is that many folks are Sensitives (highly attuned to one or more of the five senses) and there is only so much that they feel that they can take in at any given time. This has been a very stressful year with changes in school and work routines, and social and political changes and conflicts. Sensitives are not only dealing with their own experiences of the above, but are also feeling the emotions of the collective which includes their family, workspace or classroom (even on zoom), and society as a whole. There has been a lot to sort and process, all while a pandemic is occurring. Even if you have learned to function in your world, amidst the noise of sensory stimulation and strong emotions, this last year has struck Sensitives in two ways. First, there is more “noise” to process. Second, having to stay home has been a surprising gift to reduce it all.
Let me explain some of the less obvious reasons besides what was mentioned above. Sensitives usually have, or have had, issues with clothing. Society makes a joke about zooming without pants, but that is a welcome relief to many Sensitives. Even the ones who do put on pants feel more freedom to wear comfy clothes than if they were in their school or work settings. Have you heard, “These are my daytime pajamas”? Seriously, many people are wearing sweats or yoga clothes for work and school. As a personal observation I noticed by April 2020 that I couldn’t tolerate any clothing that I felt was binding. My irritability while wearing it was significant, and I realized that it was better to avoid these clothes. Relative calmness resulted.
Many students are reluctant to return to their school buildings. Some of these are kids with social insecurities. They feel that they often do the wrong things, and this has led to teasing and their own subsequent self-judgment. (Please realize that there are adults who experience the world similarly, often because this was their experience throughout their education.) When the world seems like, or has been, a scary place why would the individual want to willingly return?
Sensitives are doing all they can to process all that is happening within and around them. Their bandwidth for tolerating it all has narrowed from pre-pandemic times. They can’t tolerate the thought that they might have to now be in space (literally and energetically) with even more than what they are having to deal with in the confines of their home.
Some others have a history of difficulty with transitions from one activity to another. Others have a history of avoiding any novel activities unless they have a social story of what to expect. (See more on this below.)
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO RE-ENTRY
The individual might be ‘fearing’ losing the relative calmness, and/or may not want to tempt the fates of previous memories. But part of living this human experience is to adapt, or find equanimity (peace with what is), during the changes of life.
In a recent article, author Bufka said, “A few times in the past year I’ve thought about what it was like for my grandmother who was born in 1901, and all the changes that she saw over the course of her life. We’re having a compressed version of that….”
If we look at the developmental stages of life, this is exactly what each of us has been doing since we were born. We learned the ways of early childhood and without even realizing it we adapted into our adolescent years where we began to differentiate ourselves from our parents and our societal teachings. We questioned which of these teachings we wanted to maintain for ourselves, by our own choice. As we moved onward through adulthood, we made these same adaptations as we took on jobs, careers, and new friendships and family members. And through it all there were small and large crises to attend to as we learned how to experience the changes and challenges with the greatest ease. Like Bufka says, a lot is being condensed into what has only been a year of time, which is why some may be finding it so difficult to make the shift back into more traditional activities (even with masks, distancing and washing).
You don’t have to return to your full pre-pandemic lifestyle. Consider taking it one piece or aspect at a time.
Increase your bandwidth of tolerance by practicing good self-care strategies:
- Adequate rest
- Good nutrition and hydration
- Feed your spirit and/or your creative aspects
- Meditate, pray or daydream
- Practice your passions and try a new creative art
- Take time to be in nature
- Stay connected with friends and loved ones (even if virtually)
- Decrease sensory input when and where possible
Identify the gap and create scaffolding to bridge it:
- Create and provide social stories for yourself or your loved one. One of the reasons why new experiences feel so daunting is because we don’t know what it will look like. Identify and describe what you will most likely expect.
- Practice expanding your comfort level energetically and socially for preparation of going back to work, school etc. Since some individuals seem quite comfortable in their current milieu, they might need a significant amount of coaxing. Be sure to meet these individuals where they are. Ridiculing or shaming will NOT help your cause. Identify the small steps that will help them move comfortably from their desire to stay only indoors to engaging in-person once again: for instance, go outside with a mask; next, take a walk down the block with significant distances from others; then walk in public places and learn to move away from others in a calm, efficient manner that doesn’t attract unnecessary attention. Or, take rides in the family car and return to the house; take a ride and go to a public place, then return; take a ride to a specified place after a social story has been created, discussed and practiced.
- What space do you need for yourself? Can you create it? Role play with a trusted other, or in your mind, how to keep distance, how to ask for another to mask, or what it will look like and feel like to walk away if that is needed for optimal safety. Remember that you control many aspects of your experience.
Practice your previous skills that have been lost during this year away from more traditional routines. Never had those skills? Then this is an awesome time to learn! Find a trusted other, self-help book or professional to guide you through the process with role playing, social stories, and identifying the baby steps to move from present situation to desired participation.
As you approach re-entry, remember that though sometimes different seems uncomfortable or even daunting, it’s only different, not bad or dangerous. Use your strategies to control the narrative when possible, and to adapt your response when needed.
I now offer you this humorous video by The Holderness Family that you might find depicts the inner narrative of the reluctant participants in your life.
Judy Lipson is a Licensed Professional Counselor and educational strategist in West Bloomfield, MI. She helps clients of all ages who have learning difficulties, work or school related anxiety, ADHD, Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorders, and those who wish to Remember and Become ‘Who You Really Are’. Contact Judy at 248.568.8665 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit www.JudyLipson.com for more information.
This article is for informational purposes and is not meant to replace medical care.