It’s a phrase I hear often as a therapist: “I thought 2020 covid world was bad, but 2021 is kicking my butt!” So why is it that, now that we are able to re-enter (most) environments with a degree of safety,  we’re having more trouble emotionally than we did when our access was restricted to many of the things that brought us comfort?  There are quite a few reasons for this but most of them start and end with the fact that change is hard and our brains will do whatever it takes to keep the status quo.  Here’s how this plays out in our day-to-day lives:

  1. Certainty, control and expectations are not congruent. During lockdown, our brains were thrust into an emergency-type fight/flight mode, except we couldn’t really do either of those because who are you going to fight in isolation (except maybe your spouse or children) and going anywhere (flight) was literally impossible. So instead, many of our brains did what they do best when trapped: they froze.  This explains that sense of just “going through the motions” many of us felt when quarantine began, as well as the numbing out with media and, for some people, substances like alcohol and food.  Our brains were trying to protect us from the discomfort of knowing that our normal routine was completely altered.  We knew we didn’t have control over much of anything but we didn’t care as much because we were somewhat checked out and external expectations of us were significantly diminished.  Now that it’s late 2021, we still have some level of uncertainty and lack of control (anyone else heard about virus variants or drove to your favorite restaurant only to find it closed?).  However, the external expectations have risen dramatically.  Some may have felt like returning to work in person was akin to willing your legs to run a marathon after being on bedrest for months. It was jarring.  For many, the physical transitions pale in comparison to the emotional and social muscles that atrophied during isolation.  Why is that?
  2. Social engagement is a ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ muscle.  The social and relational pathways in our brain are strengthened when they are activated, so if you stumbled into your first party post-covid with social legs more wobbly than a newborn deer, you’re not alone. During 2020, our brains got used to a lower level of stimulation and even though it could be boring at times, our nervous systems created a new baseline for stimulation during quarantine.  It’s almost as if our nervous system “thermostat” was set at a different level for so long, that level then became the new baseline.  Changing the temp by entering into new environments takes a lot of mental and emotional energy and time to adjust. What complicates matters more is that the social environment we re-entered into was ridden with relational conflict. How does this effect us? 
  3. Heightened sensitivity to conflict and criticism coupled with an increasingly divisive social climate has led us to feel ill-prepared for the natural ebb and flow of relationships. Here’s a little lesson in how our nervous systems work: The more we are exposed to (healthy) conflict and learn how to recover from it, the stronger and more resilient we become. When we were isolating, we didn’t give our souls the opportunity to sit across from people who are different than us and hear their stories and ways of coping.  With only access to cable news and siloed information, we became de-sensitized to nuanced perspectives and our own ideals of what’s “right verses wrong” grew stronger and stronger.  Take that and add in a dash of major social unrest with very important topics that have bubbled to the surface (crisis tends to do that) and now we have a group of individually traumatized individuals re-entering a hot-button society without the necessary tools to do so with a calm, centered nervous system.  It’s been a lot for most of us to handle, but there is hope. 

How do we fix this? 

  1. Lead with empathy.  This is hard to do, especially because we are struggling and some of us are still in survival mode, but when we go through struggles, we do have choices.  We can choose to turn inward and focus only on how hard it is for us, becoming hardened toward others struggles because we are comparing them to our felt sense of pain, OR we can face into our struggle. We can take the time to heal our nervous system from the trauma and then channel that healing externally toward empathy for others who may be struggling as well.  The key is to remember that struggle is universal in nature but it’s uniquely personal in expression.  The biggest struggle for you may be understanding how someone could refuse a covid shot and leave others more vulnerable at risk while the person sitting next to you could be feeling a deep sense of terror over feeling forced to do something to their body that they don’t feel ready to do.  We don’t have to agree with anyone to value their struggle as valid to them.
  • Slowly re-expose yourself to the things that make you anxious.  Anxiety is very odd if you don’t expose it’s mechanism of action. It’s tricky because anxiety breeds avoidance but it also grows stronger when we do avoid the thing(s) we are afraid of. However, when we face them (in a measured and supported way) it diminishes.  Exposure to the things we are legitimately anxious about teaches our brain that 1.) The threat isn’t as great as it seemed and 2.) We can handle it.  If you’re nervous about doing something now that felt easy for you pre-covid, offer yourself some grace and just take one step toward that goal, knowing that one step offers you momentum and is absolutely a form of progress.  Build yourself up with supportive coping skills then take the next step.  Soon enough, you’ll find yourself halfway down a path that previously felt insurmountable when facing it all at once.

Most people need a safe place to process some of these new ways of living and being, post-quarantine.  If you are seeking support in the greater Atlanta area and not sure where to find it, take our free assessment at  Perhaps this free, 10 minute assessment is your first step toward reaching your goal of re-integrating into the meaningful life that’s waiting for you.