On June 15, the California Department of Public Health lifted most of the COVID-19 restrictions in the state. But after 15 months of stay-at-home orders, mandatory masks and social distancing, are we ready to pivot and return to the behaviors that used to be normal?
Angela Drake is a clinical neuropsychologist at UC Davis Health. In the following Q&A, she explains why we won’t be able to change our behaviors overnight and gives tips for managing stress and anxiety — pandemic-related and otherwise.
What are some of the emotions you’ve observed as California reopens?
A lot of people are excited and happy with the reopening. People who haven’t been dating for more than a year are looking forward to getting together with friends, going to clubs and bars, eating out in restaurants. People have missed social and family interactions. But there’s also some anxiety. Those of us who have been working remotely have been cocooned in our own environments for more than a year. To suddenly go back to the office or school full-time is a huge change. Change is good, but it also causes anxiety in most folks.
Why does the idea of returning to our normal behaviors create anxiety?
Last year, the demands in our social interactions changed dramatically and quickly. Schools and offices switched to remote instruction and work within a matter of days. We were expected to wear masks, social distance, wash our hands frequently, use hand sanitizer, wipe down surfaces. We all had to adapt to those altered demands very quickly.
And now you are supposed to switch those responses back to how it was before. But humans are not robots where we can quickly switch back at forth. Even after the reopening, you may be less likely to go out on the weekends. You may find yourself standing further apart in lines than you need to. Behavior like this is understandable given what’s been going on for more than a year.
Most people, given time, will be able to change and go back to old responses. When you see an old friend, you might give them a big hug instead of backing off. But it’s important to know that people will be affected differently by this — re-entry will be variable. For example, some people may be more comfortable wearing a mask for a while or continuing to work from home.
What strategies can people use to readjust?
The biggest challenge for people will be to find out what level of progression is comfortable for them. For example, if you rush people who have been working from home back into the office five days a week, it probably won’t go well. But even if you don’t immediately go back to the office full time, it is important to start going in, to start making that transition. But it’s good to start slowly and gradually.
Another important thing is to check in with yourself a few times a day. We are often not in touch with how we are feeling. If you think about a scale of zero to 10, with 10 being the worst stress imaginable and the zero being no stress, ask yourself, “What number am I at?” If you are at a seven, maybe take a break or go for a short walk. You can do this kind of check-in several times a day. It’s a type of mindfulness. With self-monitoring, people become more in tune with how they are feeling — where they are on their stress meter — and can find proactive ways to deal with the stress or anxiety.
You suggest taking a walk. What are some other ways to relieve stress or anxiety?
I use apps for teaching meditation and mindfulness. I use one called Calm and another one called Oak. But there are many. UCLA Health has free guided meditations available in several languages.
The Calm app has breathing exercises. It instructs you on how to do deep diaphragmatic breathing, sometimes called “belly breathing” or “abdominal breathing.” It also has nature sounds, so you can listen to waves, or rain or whatever calms you down. You can also find free breathing instructions and nature sounds on YouTube. The more you use the apps or videos, the better you get at relaxing. It becomes a learned response.
You can’t control when you get stressed out, but most people have their phones with them all the time. You can just put on your headphones and use an app or listen to a recording of nature sounds anytime you need it — at work or even in a store.
But it doesn’t have to be an app or meditating. Yoga, running, Pilates, prayer, playing piano, listening to music, painting, even knitting and crocheting, can all be meditative. Meditative activities are usually easy to do, repetitive, and usually involve movement of some sort. I encourage my patients to incorporate the meditative things they enjoy into their daily lives so they have a way to calm themselves and reduce anxiety.
What are some of the positives you see coming out of the pandemic?
It’s important to recognize there has been a lot of tragedy and hardship. It’s also important to recognize the good things this past year. People have innovated. They’ve come up with new workarounds, new policies, new procedures. Employees who never thought they would want to work from home now see the value in it. The pandemic brought about some good changes in health care, like the widespread adoption of telehealth. I see patients online, and they really like it, especially elderly patients. They don’t have to drive or park. It’s a great improvement for them.
I think we’ve all learned to be more flexible. People are much more appreciative of their friends, family and social connections. The pandemic has given us a new lens to look at life through. Experiences that might have been considered ordinary or even boring are now special — dinner at grandma’s house, seeing friends, dining in a restaurant, or even seeing a movie in a theater. We are recognizing and appreciating things that we didn’t before. I think the takeaway from this past year is that we are not taking things or people for granted.