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Social reintegration: preparing for post-COVID life | COMMENTARY

Recently, I turned down invitations to go salsa dancing and dine out with friends, activities I love. I found my discomfort with socializing again confusing and surprising. After all, I’ve been battling loneliness for a year and have received both doses of the vaccine. I thought I’d be racing to reengage in my pre-pandemic life. Yet, as a clinical psychologist, I know this pandemic has not only changed how we live and relate to others, it has also changed our brains. Mine included.

Effectively reintegrating into our social lives will require more than just physical immunity. Reintegration is also a matter of psychological readiness. We must retrain our brains to feel safe and comfortable again with people, and that can take some time and practice.

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Given the nature of COVID-19, our brains learned that people are dangerous and that being out in public (particularly unmasked) is a threat to our lives. Our brains learn threats like this quickly — and unlearn them slowly. Normally, this is a good thing. It protects us from everyday dangers, such as touching hot stoves and walking in front of moving cars.

As states begin to reopen and it becomes safer to be with others, our brains won’t just suddenly give up their “threat learning” on demand.

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Introverts, individuals who struggle with social anxiety or those who already felt unsafe following trauma may have had an easier time with social distancing. And, in turn, they may find increasing social contact more challenging. Reintegration will also be harder for those who have rigorously maintained social distancing during COVID-19, perhaps due to underlying health conditions or older age, which posed added risk were they to contract the virus.

As nervous as we may be about it, we can prepare ourselves psychologically to be with others again.

First, go at your own pace. Your pace may be different from your friends, co-workers, and family members, and that’s OK. Our brains feel less anxious when we have a sense of control over our lives. So, to the extent you can, decide how you want to reintegrate and at what pace. You can likely say “yes” gradually in your social life. Although you may have less control at work, it is worth having a conversation with your supervisor about your concerns. There may be some creative short-term solutions that can ease the reintegration process for you.

Second, imagine before doing. If there are activities or situations you feel anxious just thinking about doing, try imagining doing them first. “Imaginal exposure” is a technique we use in therapy to help people with phobias. It prepares our mind with the feeling state we desire before we venture into the physical environment.

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Third, be selective. You may not want to engage in all of the activities you once did. Many people report that this past year has revealed to them just how busy and unwieldy their lives had become. Grant yourself permission not to pick everything back up, even when it’s safe to do so.

Fourth, be patient. There will likely be ups and downs in your reintegration process. Some days you might feel comfortable and confident being out in the world — and some days you might not. Remember, our brains are quick to learn threats and slow to unlearn them. So, give yourself time.

Finally, be open. Although we have all been dreaming of getting back to pre-pandemic life, it doesn’t mean we are going to feel only positive emotions. Very likely you will also feel anxiety, anger, guilt, regret, grief and a host of other emotions as you begin to reengage with your life and your loved ones. We have been through a collective trauma. It will take some time to recover.

Let’s acknowledge that social reintegration is not risk free. Exercising some degree of caution around others will be necessary, even after many of us are vaccinated. But exercising caution is different from feeling anxious and under threat. These five strategies can help calm our brains as we move forward. And, notably, when our brains are calmer, we are better able to make good decisions based on science and public health guidelines.

After the year we’ve been through, we owe it to ourselves to get ready to enjoy our lives again. By taking the time to prepare our minds — and not just our bodies — we can help ourselves do just that.

Michelle Pearce (michelle.pearce@umaryland.edu), is a clinical psychologist and professor in the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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