As more people are being vaccinated and NYC heads toward reopening, many of our patients are expressing conflicted feelings of anxiety about returning back to normal post-COVID. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist recently joined WNYC’s All Of It with Alison Stewart to discuss reopening anxiety as we experience yet another significant collective transition, as well as how people can be kind to themselves and allow themselves to grieve this change.
In the segment, Matt not only speaks to Stewart, but also answers a range of listeners’ questions about reopening, including navigating in-person job interviews and in-person socializing after overbooking themselves on Zoom (in both instances, Matt encourages gradualism). Though each listener has different concerns, Matt emphasizes that we should respect that reopening overall is “going to be a profound change.” Though unprecedented is, Matt notes, “probably the most overused word of 2020,” reopening will be another unprecedented and disruptive transition.
The best medicine for these anxieties is, Matt reveals, “to really normalize it” by talking about these feelings openly. In our therapy practice, patients have expressed a variety of responses to lockdown and reopening. Some liked being physically removed, being less social, or being social in a different way. Others came to discover–to their surprise–that quarantine worked for them, while others, who liked pre-pandemic life, still feel scared about the upcoming transition. All these views, according to Matt, need to be honored and treated with kindness. “As with anything else that is a source of anxiety,” Matt says, “starting with understanding and kindness is the most important piece.”
In considering the source of the anxiety, Matt explains that there is “an opportunity for people to learn some more about who they are and how they want to organize their lives in a whole host of ways, including socially.” Through the pandemic, we’ve changed (probably much more than we realize) and reopening offers a chance to be proactive in making choices in how we face the world.
This includes dating, a topic one caller raised in relation to returning to non-monogamous dating after a period of monogamy due to vigilance about COVID-19 transmission. As with socializing more generally, Matt suggests that listeners “really use this moment,” in particular about ambivalence around dating. He continues, “Take a look at what you’ve learned in the last year or so and allow that to inform–now that you have more options–what you want to do moving forward.”
It’s critical to note, however, that while there are all sorts of anxieties people have about returning to the world, some people’s hesitations are grounded in an understandable reluctance to resubmit themselves to the experience of mistreatment, including violence based in racial, ethnic, or gender biases. For instance, one caller expressed fear about returning to the racial aggressions and microaggressions that she was accustomed to before the lockdown, while another was worried about experiencing body shaming. We haven’t solved racism during the pandemic, not nearly. Nor have we solved the problem of sexual violence in all of its forms. Nor the problematic aggression toward queer or trans individuals. Nor sexist fatphobic behavior. It’s essential that we remember these are not psychological problems, but political ones.
Ultimately, Matt advises that people take time to recognize that the pandemic was “really scary” and “validly speaking a kind of trauma.” “I don’t think it’s something that needs to completely get in the way of everyone returning to the world or wreck us,” Matt describes, “but I do think one of the things we culturally do to deal with trauma is to remember it, to talk about it, to name it, to express our feelings of grief around it, and to socialize them.”
Matt also encourages listeners “to feel some grief in the change,” whether the loss of spending more time with family or a partner or the loss of a period of being removed from the world. Though grief is often understood as synonymous with loss, grief is fundamentally the set of emotions that accompany change–the creaking and bending that comes with parts of us or the world around us taking new form. That may be good or bad, or both. We shouldn’t mistake the positives of reopening for believing that there isn’t emotional work to be done.