The Trauma of Returning to "Normal"

Oct 06, 2021

Here we are 1 ½ years from the time that the world first went into lock down. We enjoyed the summer and all the opportunity for activity, but now many are being triggered by the demands to return to the more traditional aspects of pre-pandemic life: out-of-home work and school.

For many, when the world first “stopped” there was a sigh of relief. Yes, we were scared about what COVID meant for our health and the safety of our friends and families, but we also thought that for a few weeks we could live life differently and engage with work and our social life on our own terms. Sure, we missed some of the things that we wanted to do, and the freedom of doing things the way that we wanted to do them, but we learned to create a way of living that met many of our needs. Not having to leave the house daily meant that we could curate lifestyles that prioritized our wellness in whatever way best suited us. Maybe that meant waking up later, working out more, cooking at home, limiting engagement with people you dislike, managing anxiety by choosing who and what you interact with. Whatever that looked like, social distancing meant that you had the flexibility to engage in choices that prioritized you. For a lot of us, this was our first opportunity to ever consider life from this lens and it felt free. 

Now that schools have reopened and more employers are moving back to office-based work in some capacity, many are finding themselves triggered and do not understand why. How to cope with these transitions back to “normal” and the demands that are coming with them are an increased topic I am seeing online, in sessions (mine and those of my associates) and in group coaching. Often clients feel misunderstood by others and do not even understand why they feel so violated, especially when some of these are things you did before.

What we are not naming enough is that the experience of COVID and the pandemic is TRAUMATIC. If you have had other traumatic experiences in your life, then the experiences of the past year coupled with past experiences can cause reactions within the nervous system that may seem like an over reaction to others. Irritability, decreased flexibility, decline in mood, desire to isolate, decline in motivation are just some of the reactions that you may be experiencing now. 

Additionally, choice helps us to mitigate the impact of a traumatic event. When we feel that we have the capacity to choose it helps us feel empowered and engages the parts of us that feel safest. Increased ability to choose our schedules, manage our interactions and curate aspects of our lives helped many of us get through to the toughest times in the past year. Now with life “resuming” we may feel like those choices are being taken from us, which can be triggering, especially when do not like what we are returning to or being asked to do. 

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed right now as you are asked to “resume normal” here are some things that may help you:

  1. Pause - our first reaction in times of distress is to engage in behavior that we think will change the situation. Arguing, bargaining, refusing to follow instructions are some if the externalized behaviors we engage in. Isolating or engaging in self blame are some of the internalized behaviors. Allowing yourself to take intentional pause puts you in a position to calm down enough to decide what you want to do. Remember we are looking for establishing capacity to respond, not the ability to react. 
  2. Assess - Ask yourself some questions:
    1. Identify the things that are making you feel upset?
    2. What are your fears?
    3. What are the things you have the ability to control/negotiate?
    4. With the things that you can not control what can you do to alleviate your fears? 
  3. Collaborate - who can you partner with to help with problem solve the things you can't negotiate?
  4. Soothe - don’t be afraid to feel sad/afraid/grieve the changes that you are going through. 
    1. Identify the things and people that can help you feel better during this time. 
    2. Create routines that help to bring up good feelings after doing things that bring up negative feelings. 

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