Many having trouble adjusting after COVID

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It doesn’t take much to make my mother roll her eyes.

If she is particularly put off, she may even sigh. There even may be some sucking of the teeth (she’s Guyanese, after all). There are a number of ways to elicit this response, including — but certainly not limited to — not knowing what I am making for dinner sooner than an hour before mealtime, returning her phone call before I listen to the voicemail that she left, and mentioning my dislike for any type of food that once spent its time at the bottom of the ocean.

But since the pandemic darkened the world’s doorstep, there’s a whole new set of sigh-inducing, teeth-sucking-worthy things that challenge her — and me — on a daily basis.

From the constant debate around why she can’t hug her grandchildren, to her annoyance that we have not gathered around her (indoor) table for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter again, not to mention countless birthdays, navigating COVID-19 has felt like one big hamster wheel — never-ending and  exhausting. But with Ontario in the midst of reopening, and all of us double-vaxxed, I had eagerly been expecting a lull so I could jump off.

Then this happened.

“Let’s go for lunch,” my mom said.

Perfectly reasonable, my brain whispered. After all, we have been cooped up for months — I barely remember what it’s like to have food just show up in front of me. It sounded divine, exciting, maybe even a little sneaky. That we could even entertain such an adventure was a sign that yes, things were looking up pandemic-wise, that there was light at the end of the tunnel — our time had come to dance it out and get back to our joie de vivre.

Except I didn’t want to go. I really, really, didn’t want to go.

“Can’t we just have some snacks on your patio?” I asked, cringing, bracing for the teeth-sucking. “I’ll pick up something lunch-y.”

She had me on speaker phone, and the line was crackly, but it was unmistakable — first the teeth, and then the eye-roll. I could just feel it.

“Come on,” she said, a little too loudly. “You’re vaccinated, I’m vaccinated… (teeth) What’s the big deal?”

The truth was I didn’t know exactly. I had been waiting months for things to get back to some sort of normal, and yet, here we were. I was like one of those animals kept in captivity for most of their lives that are left in the middle of a beautiful version of their natural habitat with the cage door open, and yet they can’t bring themselves to leave. My pandemic “cage” had been unlocked, but as alluring as some patio time was, I liked the comfort of my cage more.

I was reassured of this later in the day when my hair stylist called to let me know she was reopening her shop. “Your spikey hair is about to get a revival,” she chirped happily. Her and I have a long history of wild colours, shaved masterpieces and self-designed hairstyles. And though I booked the appointment, I knew it wouldn’t be for spikes. Or colour. Or self-designed anything. In fact, I was going to only get a trim. Basically, the look I am going for is the same pandemic hair, only without the split ends.

“That doesn’t sound like you,” she said, worriedly.

Yikes. Are my days of patios and adventurous hair over?

There’s no question that beginning life again post-pandemic feels a little weird and strange. And while some people will adjust quicker than others, it’s not going to be easy. One of my friends has admitted that the fears she grew during the pandemic will shape her life in the future — she will avoid public transit, stay away from crowded restaurants and never, ever, put her finger in her nose again. My daughter can’t imagine ever not wearing a mask in public. And they are not alone.

The American Psychological Association recently released a study on coronavirus stress, reporting that “nearly half of Americans (49 per cent) said they feel uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction once the pandemic ends,” while 46 per cent said “they didn’t feel comfortable going back to living life like they used to before the pandemic.”

Those are concerning numbers, but not surprising. Normalcy after a crisis takes some getting used to.

In a story in the Globe and Mail by Adrienne Matei, Dr. Alain Brunet says he expects to see people experiencing adjustment disorders, a stress-related condition that can cause intrusive thoughts, difficulty concentrating and anxiety, among other things.

“An adjustment disorder is like a little brother of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Brunet, who studies the effects of traumatic stress on mental health at the McGill University-affiliated Douglas Research Centre. “It’s essentially a series of anxious and depressive symptoms that people might develop as a result of being exposed to a stressful but non-traumatic event.”

Basically, if you have an adjustment disorder, you have trouble adapting to some kind of normal after a period of intense stress, even when the stressful thing is over. So instead of feeling relief, you continue to feel the same negative emotions and thoughts. It’s not comfortable, for sure, but according Dr. Mimi Winsberg, cofounder and chief medical officer of Brightside, a mental health telemedicine service, symptoms are usually temporary.

“Unlike clinical depression, which does not require a reason or stressful life event to be associated with it, what triggers adjustment disorder will, in most cases, eventually come to an end,” she writes for Fast Company.”But reminding yourself that we will get to the other side of this can greatly help your mental state.” She does note however, that some people with adjustment disorder go on to experience clinical anxiety or depression. (If you are worried, Brightside has a free scoring tool to help you evaluate your symptoms.)

I’m not sure if my hesitancy about patios — or my friend’s commitment to never pick her nose again — is a sign of difficulty adjusting to life after a pandemic. Certainly, my mother doesn’t feel the same. She has already had a haircut, a pedicure and a manicure and made a bunch of trips to the mall.

If you are finding that your pandemic recovery pendulum needs a bit of encouragement to swing in the right direction, there are a few things you can do, according to the experts, to smooth the transition, like set boundaries with friends and families (ya, mom), keep talking your feelings out, either with trusted friends or a professional, and be good to your body — eat well, get enough sleep and exercise. Oh, and maybe get a funky hair cut.

This story originally appeared in the Healthing Weekender. Click here to subscribe.

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