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As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic, people are beginning to get back to their pre-pandemic lives. All those postponed weddings are finally happening, you might be able to see Grandma again, and you may see the inside of a restaurant more frequently. 

As more and more people get vaccinated, generally off-limits social activities of the last year and a half are starting to happen once again. But as we begin to return to our pre-Covid lives, there are bound to be lingering feelings from this intense, year-plus experience that may make that reconnection difficult.

Covid as trauma

As we re-enter society so to speak, it may be helpful to think of the last year and a half through a lens of trauma recovery. Psychology Today defines trauma as a deeply distressing experience that, unlike ordinary hardships, tends to be sudden and unpredictable, and may involve a serious threat to life. But trauma doesn’t have to be a one-time event, known as acute trauma. Chronic trauma is exposure to extreme situations over a long period of time—such as a pandemic—and can leave the same deleterious effects. The distinctive quality of trauma—regardless of the event, intensity, or duration—is that it always enacts the fight-flight-freeze response, and usually involves a sense of helplessness or a loss of power or control. Sound familiar?

Remember when everyone ransacked the grocery stores and Costco to load up on essentials? You can bet that was the adrenaline from the fight-flight-freeze response in action to the news of a scary, unknown virus. Over the next year and a half, people dealt with anxiety, fear, shock, and anger—all common responses to trauma—as we dealt with deaths and illnesses of loved ones, loss of businesses and incomes, changes to family and home-life structure, unprecedented school years, and the looming fear of the unknown while the virus lurked in the shadows. The coronavirus pandemic that we’ve collectively endured has trauma written all over it.

Healing from trauma is a process

Therapists often discuss trauma recovery in three phases, first mentioned by Dr. Pierre Janet in 1889 and later popularized by Dr. Judith Herman in her book Trauma and Recovery. These phases of trauma recovery include (1) safety and stabilization, (2) remembrance and mourning, and (3) reconnection and integration.

It is important to note that the three phases of trauma recovery are not distinct and linear. Trauma specialist and psychotherapist Odelya Gertel Kraybill, PhD, explains, “In my view, the road after trauma is cyclical, not linear. None of the stages is 'once and done.'” 

Renowned trauma psychiatrist and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Bessel van der Kolk, MD, offers another way of thinking of the three phases: “(1) stabilize and calm patients down, (2) help to lay traumatic memories and reenactments to rest, and (3) reconnect patients with their fellow men and women.”

Some of us individually may be moving through these phases of trauma recovery, and it seems like together as a culture we’re experiencing them, too.

Reconnection: Where we are

As the pandemic wanes and we get glimpses of “normal,” it appears as though many are in the reconnection phase (i.e. the third phase) of our Covid-trauma recovery. This is the stage at which a “new future” is created such that the victim of trauma (in this case, the whole world) begins to redefine herself as she reconnects with others via meaningful relationships. Similarly, in this stage of Covid-trauma recovery, we are figuring out and redefining what our new normal will be. We are quite literally reconnecting with others as we try to manage our own personal remaining fears and anxieties (such as navigating our own and others’ updated Covid boundaries and comfort levels with social events).

Like other trauma recovery, in which there can be an urge to feel “recovered” as soon as possible, we may also have an eagerness to jump back into life as we used to know it. Through a lens of trauma recovery, this may be because the person who suffered the trauma is feeling better, and recognizes a difference in herself, and feels eager to jump into a life no longer defined by trauma. 

This makes sense through our Covid experience; being deprived of the social interaction for so long and having them taken away so suddenly and unexpectedly, we may feel extremely eager to begin our new, post-Covid normal as we see signs of a post-Covid world begin to pop up. Especially for those who are vaccinated or living in areas with low transmission rates, we may feel particularly safe returning to normal. But just because we might be physically protected, doesn’t mean we are necessarily mentally or emotionally protected when we delve back into social events.

Backsliding is normal

In trauma, recovery is exciting and laudable. But it’s important not to fall into the trap of feeling like trauma recovery happens in finite steps, such that we “complete” each stage as we pass through it. In actuality, trauma recovery usually involves going through these stages like a spiral, rather than a straight line. Dr. Kraybill, elucidates “Survivors usually go through each phase more than once (although often with differing durations and intensities).” Trauma recovery can involve some post-traumatic effects (such as anxiety or fear in triggering situations at times) but with the overriding sense of living in the present without being overwhelmed by thoughts of the past.

In our almost-post-Covid world, this means that you may feel overwhelmed, confused, or anxious in the face of triggering situations: a crowded restaurant, a short-stocked grocery aisle, people talking “too” close together, or seeing people at a grocery store not wearing masks. Our reality for the last year and a half involved distancing, masks, and a lot less indoor time. Fear plagued us nearly as much as this virus did, so it is going to take time to overcome our newly developed instinctual fears.

The eagerness that accompanies the hope of having Covid in our rearview mirror may lead us to overpack our schedule. This is to be expected since for just about the last year and a half, as we haven’t had to worry about saying “no” to events and protecting our time since that was built-in to the Covid restrictions we faced. So now, we begin to re-enter a world where our boundary-setting skills may be a bit rusty, and our zeal for normalcy is high. The result may look like a kid in a candy shop, stuffing their bags with sugar while they can. We may be so excited for social events that we end up overscheduling ourselves, leading to burnout. This can, of course, take a toll mentally and emotionally. This is why I think it’s important we be aware of the stage of trauma recovery we’re in and also have some awareness of how to cope while we reconnect.

Know thyself

As we’ve all been super eager to be social again, it’s normal that you’d feel so excited that you’d pack your schedule. But even for the most outgoing and extroverted of us, our minds and bodies have likely calibrated to a new normal. Our “social tolerance,” if you will, is likely much lower than where it was a year and a half ago. And it’s normal and expected that it might take some time to ramp back up.

But figuring out what our social tolerance level is and what might overwhelm is still going to be related to whether we are more extroverted or introverted. Being extroverted or introverted isn’t black and white; rather, it exists on a continuum with each at either end. Still, people do tend to fall into one half of the continuum or the other—either more extroverted or more introverted. Outgoing doesn’t equal extroversion nor does shy equal introversion; that is a common misconception. Put simply, extroverts “charge” their mental and emotional batteries on social interaction, whereas introverts experience social interaction as something that depletes their batteries. Extroverts feel fueled up by social activity, whereas introverts might be drained by the same activity.

If you know which you are, you can generally know where to start for scheduling social activities for yourself. An extrovert might be able to jump back in to a decent amount of social activity, whereas an introvert might have to start more gradually and slowly. But a general rule of thumb for both parties is to dial back whatever your pre-pandemic normal amount of social activity was, knowing that few of us will be able to immediately jump back to where we were before without burning out.

Start small

Since we’ve been salivating at the idea of “normal” social gatherings, it might be hard to believe that social burnout is even possible. It might feel as though you have so much pent up social energy that you could never get sick of gatherings. However, the risk of social burnout is still real—maybe more now than ever. With all our eagerness to jump back full swing into social activities, it’s important to start with small doses.

Maybe reserve one to two nights for downtime—or more for introverts or those feeling overwhelmed by social settings. Maybe you choose never to book yourself two nights in a row, or stay in on either Saturday or Sunday every weekend, or not to travel more than two times in a month. Having clear, built-in boundaries like this will help us reteach ourselves how to balance our social lives after being out of practice for so long.

Take note of the type of events

Be aware of the frequency and intensity of the social events you choose to engage in. Also think about the intensity of the social activity when committing to things. Is it a wedding, with lots of people, small talk, close contact, dancing—all of which were generally off-limits in the last year? Or is it getting coffee inside a coffee shop with a friend—which, other than being maskless and indoors, was a fairly Covid-friendly activity? While you may not have participated in either of those social activities in the heat of the pandemic, they are at opposite ends of a spectrum of social intensity. If you choose to engage in high intensity social activities (such as a wedding) it may be wise to reduce the frequency of activities. Conversely, you may be able to have more low intensity social activities (such as dining indoors with a friend) without reaching your new “social tolerance” level.

Just as the pandemic was uncharted territory for all of us, this phase of reconnection and opening up again is uncharted territory for all of us, as well. Considering these steps will help us navigate what once was familiar, while helping us to understand how the trauma of Covid might linger while we head out into "normal" again. 

It’s important to remember too that there is no right or wrong approach to recovery here—it’s a process that may take a little or a lot of time, but like we’re still all in this together.