Hitting the Pandemic Wall
For many of us, the pandemic and now the time we are moving into post-pandemic has created an unusual situation – life as an unbroken series of days that followed the same pattern.
I think of a client in her 30’s who saw me for a brush-up appointment this week after a long period of success in managing her anxiety after she completed therapy. She talked to me about the sameness of every day. She and her husband work from home while her mother comes over to care for their two young children. Day after day for going on a year. She knows she is very lucky – she and her husband have kept their jobs, and her mother had moved to live near them before the pandemic and so was able to provide childcare when daycare and preschool closed in March. Yet this post-pandemic anxiety is overwhelming her.
They have a large enough house to have a playroom for the kids and a home office both parents share, and they have money for food. Seeing the sad stories of people suffering losses of loved ones or financial crises makes her feel guilty for talking about the stress and anxiety of hitting the pandemic wall.
The novelty of life at home 24-7 wore off months ago and now they are all sick of the sameness of every day. They long for activities and relationships outside of their home, many of which are not options now. In our area outside of Washington, DC, life is nothing like it was before the pandemic. Local and state public health messages warn us to be vigilant. My client’s anxiety grew as she felt increasingly trapped at home. Prior to calling for an appointment, her treadmill broke, which she felt was the last thing helping her keep her sanity.
Does this sound familiar, either for you or for your clients?
Anxiety latches onto whatever is new and unusual in our lives, and for many people, ironically, the sameness of every day has led to this feeling of being trapped in our homes and in the routine of our lives. As always, anxiety wants us to focus intently on the topic it has chosen.
Getting back on track to living a good life even with anxiety starts with identifying that this is a problem with anxiety, and that is not easy with this topic! Remember that identifying this feeling of being trapped in our every-day lives as anxiety does not mean that this is an ideal situation, or negate the difficult realities of the current state of the world. It simply says that our reaction to the difficult situation is unnecessarily focused and preventing us from seeing other aspects of our lives.
We can help our clients use thought record sheets to notice negative, worried thought patterns and come up with better self-talk. We can also find action steps, even in a time of restrictions.
My client was surprised to consider that this was anxiety but quickly got back to using her thought record sheets about this new topic. She also shifted her work schedule by 30 minutes each day and started taking the kids outside on a daily walk at the end of her workday, often having them ride small scooters which the kids really enjoyed. Three days a week she got up early and took an online group yoga class. She signed up for a meal kit delivery service to get more varied meals. She and her husband also started planning a week at the beach this summer with the kids and her mom in a rental house. She is back to being able to recognize that life, even during this difficult time, has good things to enjoy.
Transitions bring an opportunity for anxiety because by definition they involve moving to something new. The anxiety triggers of transitions can be especially difficult post-pandemic. But even outside of this time, think about clients who regularly struggle with the “Sunday scarries.” Anxiety grows when we say “Oh no, tomorrow is Monday!” Sure, it’s great when that anxiety reminds us to get our clothes laid out and our alarm set to wake up on time for work or school, but for people who have intense anticipatory anxiety, it can make them miserable on Sunday.
Most of us are in a transition period right now as more people get vaccinated against the coronavirus and more activities re-open after a long year in our homes. For our anxious clients, though, these once-routine activities can become huge triggers for anxiety. I think for all of us, it’s a good opportunity to stop and consider, what do we value?
Once I had my vaccinations, the answer was clear – I value health and exercise, and so my first transition saw me returning to my local gym. There were only 60 people at a time allowed by local law. The gym had added a real-time numbers tracker to their website, but the reality is that in my area outside of Washington DC most people are still not ready to go back to the gym, so the numbers were always more like 15 people at any given time. Nothing close to the maximum.
The day I returned to the gym I checked in with myself and noticed I felt excited. I got there and greeted the person checking people in, only to realize I had carefully brought my library card instead of my gym pass. It was a funny moment, and the front desk worker and I had a little laugh while she manually signed me in. It was only when I got home that I realized that I had my gym pass on my key chain with me the entire time. What does that all mean? It all felt new to my brain, and I wasn’t doing things in a routine, calm way, and wasn’t thinking things through clearly either. The key to this is that I did it. I went, I got checked in, and I stayed and did a workout. The next day I went back and it’s been part of my routine ever since. Make sure to identify anxiety as you and your clients re-enter your normal activities, and give yourself and your clients credit for taking small steps and then re-evaluating.
Remind yourself and your client of all the times we have had normal transitions, such as aging up in school or the beginning or end of a vacation and handled it fine. These can be exciting times, and times of growth. So, too, is this post-pandemic time, if we are able to recognize anxiety, give it space, and also make a plan to return to visiting with the people, participating in the activities and enjoying the places we love and missed this long year.