Five Things to Keep in Mind On the Path Out of COVID

“How can I be so grateful and so overwhelmed at the same time!” a parent recently shared. “I dreamt of these activities for months and now I just feel more up and down than I imagined I would.”

Many of us have likely spent time imagining what life “after COVID” would feel like. Indeed, the viral Extra gum advertisement depicting our mad rush out into the public realm summed up a real yearning to emerge from the pandemic and back into each other’s lives. 

Coming through COVID is a path, not a switch.

Unlike the commercial though, there is no switch that turns COVID on or off. There is no announcement simultaneously delivered to our phones announcing an erasure of the year’s traumas and a return to “normal.” Instead, the path is uneven and shaped in significant ways by our identities, geographies, and experiences. We are still living with COVID in our communities. We are worried as we wonder how to navigate life with unvaccinated young kids or health vulnerabilities. We are grieving lost loved ones. We are navigating the other “fall-outs” from the pandemic including loss of jobs and mental health challenges.  We are exhausted.

We are also experiencing immense joy, reconnections and reunions.

The challenge is that the gap between our expectations and our lived experiences can hinder our ability to repair. So instead of ignoring the multiple truths of this moment, adults and kids alike will benefit from trying the following instead:

Name it. 

During the pandemic, many people began giving more honest responses to the question “How are you?” or “How are your kids?” The collective gravity of the past year lent itself to more emotional honesty. Just because vaccines are available doesn’t mean that our answers should automatically become “I’m doing great!” 

Facing our emotions, even the difficult ones, is an essential part of our emotional health and wellbeing – during the pandemic and beyond. As emotion researcher Dr. Susan David reminds us, ignoring difficult emotions often amplifies them. In contrast, facing our thoughts and emotions willingly and with curiosity can actually help us thrive amidst uncertainty because it helps us build a toolkit for handling them. 

So as we navigate this transition, be sure you give yourself and your kids permission to feel. As Fred Rogers wisely shared, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”

Share and respond with care. 

While facing and naming our emotions is useful, it is also vulnerable. Watch out for the impulse to over-reassure or to negate or amplify emotions in yourself or in others. This also means we should choose carefully whom we trust with our emotions.

This is what negating a child’s feelings can sound like: “Oh it’s not that bad! Just think about how much better things are than they were six months ago! You should be grateful you can do rec programming this summer!”

This is what amplifying a child’s feelings can sound like: “This year has been a mess and this is probably going to be a disaster too! Maybe we just shouldn’t do rec programming this summer since you are so worried about it and we aren’t sure what it will be like.”

Instead, try responding with empathy and care. “It sounds like you are really overwhelmed by the idea of being with a bunch of new kids. We are a little rusty aren’t we? Let’s think of one thing you can do when you get that overwhelmed feeling.”

Practice both-and thinking.

Kids and adults alike sometimes think they only have room for one emotion at a time. This can be especially true for adolescents. A parent who lost her mother this year recently told me that her son shared, “I am looking forward to seeing Grandpa, but I know I shouldn’t be too excited.” Remind your child that it is okay to be sad about loss and excited or joyful about something else. Indeed, claiming and creating joy, play, and fun is essential on the path to wellbeing.

In other words, encourage and model “both-and” thinking during this transition. We can be both scared and joyful; grieving and grateful; exhausted and energized; hurt and healing. 

Protect time and space for repair and recovery. 

Stress regulation is not a limitless resource. Many of us lost the benefits of “surge capacity” months ago and have been running on fumes ever since. The good news is that we have access to a broader range of activities that can help us recharge now – ranging from socializing with friends to investing in new systems of support. 

The bad news is that it can be easy to skip over stress recovery, especially with a drumbeat of messages that we can get “back to normal” now. Dr. Ann Masten, a researcher on resilience at the University of Minnesota reminds us that resilience is “limited but recoverable.” The catch is that recovery doesn’t just happen automatically. Whats more, some elements of “normal” were toxic to our physical and mental health to begin with. 

So let’s not put our toolkit for stress recovery away just because vaccines are here. Now, more than ever, we need to take mental health vital signs and protect time and space for personal and collective care. Not just for our own wellbeing, but to meet the demands and opportunities of this moment. As education leader Craig Martin shared early in the pandemic, “we have a moral obligation to not return to normal.”

Start to discern the difference between recovery and worry-driven avoidance. 

Down time can help us recover from stress. Setting boundaries can protect recharge. That said, we need to watch that COVID habits and well-practiced worry don’t keep us from what will help most. 

Worrying is one of our human superpowers. Worry causes us to scan our environment for potential threats, anticipate what might go wrong, and consider responses that will minimize harm. Part of an entire “fear network” that keeps us alive, worry is an ongoing balancing act between our alarm brain and our cognitive brain. 

For example, as you approach a friend your alarm brain might tell you “AVOID CONTACT!” based on our experiences this past year.  Your cognitive brain might then calm that response with a thought like, “We are both vaccinated and the data indicates that this is safe, go for it.” making the reunion much more enjoyable.

This year has put additional demand on our fear networks because there has been an onslaught of “alarm worthy” experiences. The challenge now is to try to discern when COVID worry is still working to keep us safe and when it might be technically keeping us safe but at a cost to our health and wellbeing.

Some kids and adults will shed worry like their masks and run back out into the world. But for others, worry is more likely to stay in the driver’s seat. If that’s the case, this is a good time to name worry, talk to it, and build a worry toolkit.

Where have we been, where are we going?

As we look forward to what’s next we would be wise to make meaning of where we have been. One way that we can do this is by telling stories. Dr. Anne Gearity encourages us to “make room every day for children to tell what they’ve experienced during COVID because what we know about stress is – if you don’t get the stories organized, so they can feel like they’re past, they stay ever present.”

This doesn’t mean that we make a “Hero’s Journey” out of our experiences by artificially wrapping-up the grieving process or simplifying ongoing struggles for racial justice. Instead, research on family storytelling emphasizes that we actually benefit most from “oscillating narratives.” As opposed to stories that detail straight paths towards either victory or destruction, these stories are full of ups and downs, complications, accomplishments, growth, setbacks and strengths. 

This won’t happen in one, idyllic story hour. It happens over time when we give our kids opportunities to make art, contribute to a family poem, talk about their memories, create podcasts, or just talk. 

Stories help organize our experiences and make meaning of where we’ve been. They also remind us that we have the opportunity to actively write and re-write what comes next.