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How Does It Feel to Transition Out of Social Isolation? Your Guide to Emotions in the “Reopening” and “Return-to-Work” Phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic

As the possibility of business and recreation gradually reopening becomes more of an imminent reality, many of us will face the opportunity to step out into the outside world again, into closer contact with other live (not-virtual) human beings, for the first time in months. 

Despite many social media narratives that celebrate this possibility, the actual emotions we might face as such opportunities become realities might be a lot more complex than that.

When COVID-19 initially hit, we fell suddenly and unexpectedly into a full-blown crisis. As with any onset of crisis, it is common and even likely to feel emotions like anxiety, worry, panic, overwhelm, and fear.

And as long as we continue to live in this crisis, especially as food, work & income, and housing remain uncertain for so many, we can expect these emotions of anxiety, worry, panic, overwhelm and fear to stay present. 

Everything inside of us is mobilizing—body and mind—to meet these threats that we face, and to survive them. 

Now that we are a couple of months into the pandemic, I am seeing some clients in my psychotherapy practice who are beginning to enter into the next phase of emotions. Since we’ve now had some time to start absorbing a bit of the new reality, and certainly, as we anticipate returning to work, the main emotions we are feeling are expected to shift. Increasingly, I anticipate seeing more people with emotions like depression, chronic boredom & under-stimulation, frustration, hopelessness, helplessness, and despair.

As we continue to take in more of what we have been experiencing, we are going to feel more of the weight of it all, and at times that weight is likely to feel quite heavy. 

So, what can you do to support yourself through these current and upcoming emotional experiences? For me and the way that I practice psychotherapy, the answer comes back to ‘connection.’ 

Firstly, it is essential to maintain—or build—connection to yourself. Once or twice per day, for 15 or 30 or 60 seconds at a time, stop and check-in with yourself. Notice what is happening in your thoughts and feelings, and even in your body. Notice your breath, notice your bodily sensations, and check in on them at various moments and throughout the following days because they are likely to fluctuate. 

Self-monitoring, in this manner, can help you to feel grounded in yourself and your experiences. It can also help you to identify when you need help—and this leads to a second point: we also need to be maintaining connection to others. 

If you find yourself struggling or feeling unwell, try to reach out. Of course, you can always reach out to a psychotherapist, and you can also reach out to a close friend or family member who might intently listen to you, or else might help you problem solve, depending on what you need. 

You can also try going for a walk to give your thoughts some space, or write them out, or even audio record them for yourself. In any of these cases, reaching beyond yourself to outwardly express what you are thinking and feeling can help you release some emotional burden, and so can help you to feel a little better. 

Secondly, as you are reaching out to others, do not forget that you can probably assist others, too; there can be a mutual exchange of support. Sometimes all someone might want is to be heard, and even in times when we feel we have nothing left to give, just existing next to someone alongside their experiences can bring great relief. The relief is mutual, as we benefit from a dose of feel-good chemicals in the brain when we connect with and help others. 

One final thought on emotions in this next stage of the pandemic: sometimes we can forget that it is absolutely possible to feel many different things, including stress and hopelessness, and even gratitude, or any other mix of emotions, all at the same time. These feelings can co-exist together.

If we can hold on to this thought, maybe we can make even just a tiny bit more space for the feelings of connection and groundedness. 

Take good care.

Reesa Packard, M.A., Ph.D., R.P. is an Associate and registered psychotherapist at CFIR (Ottawa). She has a doctoral degree from the Saint Paul School of Psychotherapy & Spirituality and works in private practice as a registered psychotherapist. She works with clients hoping to develop a more integrated sense of self as a means to well-being and meaningful, lasting transformation. Reesa is also involved in the teaching and supervision of psychotherapists-in-training and advanced knowledge through research in her specialty fields.