Editor’s note: Have you been eating poorly in the last year, since the start of the pandemic? Have you become comfortable in your isolation? Are you unsure of how to take those first steps back to a comfortable level of fitness? As more of us are vaccinated and we begin our long recovery from a year unlike any other, The Denver Post wants to help. Today, we’ll be addressing exercise, mental health and nutrition, and what we can do to return to our best selves.
The return of social life can seem like a gauntlet to people with anxiety and depression. And after a year without birthday parties, weddings, dates, concerts or family reunions, we’ve all got something to get through, at some point.
But forcing ourselves back into socializing is not necessary, experts say. Many people are just starting to feel the trauma of the last 12 months as we creep out of survival mode. We need time to go at our own pace instead of loading up on obligations, said Jill Squyres, an Arvada-based clinical psychologist.
“People who’ve never had panic attacks or social anxiety have developed the habit of being anxious in crowds,” Squyres said. “That’s a habit that we developed under conditions of fear and anxiety, and it’s hard to unlearn those.”
In addition, people with pre-existing anxiety or depression are confronting a complex set of variables, including strained support systems that may have once relied on in-person mentorship, 12-step meetings, therapy or group spiritual practices. Adolescents can face yet another layer of digital resistance when returning to social life, said Lisa Strohman, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based clinical psychologist.
“Pre-pandemic, we already had kids who were becoming more reliant on devices to have interpersonal relationships,” she said, noting a wave of “technology-acquired introversion.” “And then they were thrown into a pandemic where all of a sudden that’s normal.”
But anonymity is not the answer, experts say, even if you’re having trouble making eye contact in public. Rebuilding trust with one another (and therefore in crowds) requires reaching out, accepting help and feeling good about our decisions.
“We are social creatures, and we need to lean on one another,” said Strohman, whose podcast “The Point With Dr. Lisa Strohman” features interviews with Sue Klebold, mother of Columbine High School shooter Dylan Klebold, and Denver’s Amy Van Dyken, an Olympic gold-medalist swimmer who was paralyzed in a 2014 accident.
“When traumas occur and pain is happening, our instinct is to unite and lean on one another. We flipped all that on its head with this pandemic, and that’s something none of us have ever experienced.”
So what can you do? Here are some expert recommendations:
Talk (about how you feel)
Therapy is an important part of processing our feelings about the last year, and what’s to come. Being honest and vulnerable will help people recognize some of their fears and obstacles before diving back in. “When do we know to push ourselves and when not to?” Squyres said. “I really encourage people to talk about their discomfort and their experiences with it.” Furthermore, some of us aren’t exactly looking forward to returning to “normal” life, Squyres said, and will miss the solitude of quarantine. Saving money, avoiding onerous obligations (and people) and working from home are all reasons for some people actually miss the lockdowns. “For them, the issue may be, ‘I worked on my social anxiety and panic disorder before, and now I’ve regressed,’ so it’s important to talk about and plan for what to expect.”
Listen (to your brain)
Spend more time consciously noting your comfort level in different situations. Recognizing discomfort isn’t just about being picky; it’s about knowing what drains or gives us energy. Turning down an invitation could be a positive thing if it saves us from feeling trapped, unhappy or tired. “At the end of the day if we are focused on anything outside of ourselves, we begin to lose control of ourselves,” said Michelle Marie King, a former Denverite who founded Positive Presence, a national teen-mentoring program. “The introvert forcing themselves to go out is not going to feel like they’re living authentically.”
Prepare (for anything)
Making informed decisions will help ease the anxiety in group situations we can’t control. Perhaps most important: You have every right to know what you’re getting into, so don’t hesitate to ask who’s vaccinated, how many people will be there, and other questions that directly address the safety of the event. Start slow with small, outdoor gatherings to build comfort. Avoid pricey tickets to events if you haven’t been to any in awhile. “Don’t commit a lot of money to something unless you’re ready for it,” Squyres said. “Peer pressure and social pressure, mask-shaming … these things could cause a lot of people to avoid situations. You have to know what you’re getting into.”
Be sensitive (and kind)
Our personal-space bubbles ballooned during the pandemic, but everyone’s boundaries are still different. “Some people may have anxiety reactions that are unexpected, so it’s important to be more careful about taking offense or interpreting someone else’s behavior in a negative, personal way,” Squyres said. “The rules of social engagement are different, and we’ve gotten used to empty chairs and lots of space. How do you comfortably ask what someone’s vaccine situation is? It’s kind of like STDs and dating: ‘What’s your vax status?’ ”
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