Trauma leaves an indelible mark on the nervous system. When faced with an existential threat, our brains shift into overdrive, activating systems designed to keep us safe. Even after the threat recedes, our nervous systems remain on high alert. Our brains will stubbornly stick to the routines we’ve adopted over the last year because they have been so critical for our survival. For the foreseeable future, we will instinctively reach for our facemasks, startle when someone coughs and stand further apart. With repeated reassurance that the threat is really gone, these habits will slowly fade. But the nervous system will need more time to calm down than it did to initially escalate.
Complicating matters, the end of the pandemic will not be clearly defined. The virus will recede but there won’t be a proclaimed day of victory. Once we go through a trauma, our nervous systems rapidly re-escalate in situations that remind us of the traumatic one — we’ve all heard stories of former soldiers who still duck at the sound of a backfiring car. We will worry more than usual when we get our first post-pandemic cold. We’ll probably feel jittery the first few times we have dinner at a friend’s house. Some pre-pandemic behaviors may never feel truly safe again.
Transitions are often awkward and messy. In the space between one state and the next, there is usually ambiguity, uncertainty and disorientation. This is where we are now. A lot is still unclear; scheduling beyond the next few weeks may still be guesswork. We know that our post-pandemic life will resemble our pre-pandemic life, but also that there will be stark differences. There won’t be a “back to normal,” but rather a “new normal.” Some changes may be exciting and welcome, while others may bring new anxieties. In my own family, we are grateful that telework options will mean fewer business trips and more barefoot workdays, but dread the return of hectic early-morning routines and shuttling kids between extracurricular activities. It will take mental energy to adjust to new routines and to decide what things to carry forward and what things to leave behind.
Change is also rarely linear. As the grip of pandemic anxiety starts to ease, thoughts and feelings you’ve been able to defer for a year — by shoving them into the closets of your mind — may re-emerge, demanding to be addressed. You might be surprised when worry, grief and despair appear, just as things seem to be getting better.
In my practice, I’m already hearing from parents whose relief about their children returning to in-person school quickly turned to concerns about delayed academic skills. Reunions with loved ones may be shadowed by the mutual recognition of unrecoverable time. As we realize the full extent of what has been lost and grasp the challenges ahead, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed.
At this point, you might be wondering: How can I fast-forward through my psychological recovery? Do I have the strength or patience to process difficult emotions when this has gone on for so long, and I have experienced so much loss? Having these thoughts and emotions can actually be a sign that recovery is already underway. And a few cognitive and social factors will make this process easier.
This content was originally published here.