Coming out of Hibernation: 5 Tips for How to Navigate Reentry

Many of us have longed for the moment when it would be safe enough to leave our house without a mask or to host a large group of friends for a backyard barbeque. And now that COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted across the country and more than 52 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, the moments we’ve been longing for are finally here—or will be very soon. It’s a hopeful time, and yet some of us are like bears emerging from a long hibernation; we’re having to relearn how to drive on busy highways, initiate small talk at social gatherings and lean into a hug.

There’s a name for this experience, when you return to a familiar place after a long absence. It’s called “reentry syndrome.” It helps describe some of the confusion and anxiety nearly half of Americans (according to a recent study by the American Psychological Association) are feeling right now as the world opens back up. Still, there is so much potential for us to enjoy our reentry—to savor those things we have missed.

To get some practical advice for how we can enjoy this transition, The Bell interviewed mental health counselor Reid Swetland of the Gordon College Counseling Center. Here are his five tips for navigating reentry and relishing it too.

1.   Recognize that reentry anxiety isn’t experienced by everyone

“The reentry experience is very subjective,” says Swetland. Not everyone experienced loneliness, social isolation or lived in a community where COVID protocols were strictly enforced. “Some introverts have really thrived and have benefitted from the additional solitude and work-from-home environment,” he explains.

It’s also hard to generalize when it comes to assessing the impact of the pandemic on a person’s life. “Depending on whether or not you lost your job, were able to shift to working from home, or if your income was not interrupted, your experience during the pandemic looked very different from that of a front-line worker, a service-industry worker, and certainly if you lost a loved one,” says Swetland.

2.   Pace yourself and revisit the question, “What am I comfortable with?”

If the idea of eating inside at a restaurant sounds too overwhelming, you can take baby steps to move from cooking at home to dining out, explains Swetland. That first step may look like ordering takeout with curbside pickup. Then picking up takeout on-site. Then reserving a table during a restaurant’s off-peak hours. “You have a lot of choices,” Swetland encourages. “You can choose what makes you feel comfortable. Acclimation is about empowerment.”

3.   Respect the personal boundaries and choices of others

Each person has a different concept of what makes them feel safe. So, “we need to respect the individual boundaries and choices of the people around us,” counsels Swetland. “It’s not about what inconveniences us . . . It’s about what makes us feel safe and what makes other people feel safe. Ask questions like, ‘Is it okay if I hug you?’ Because not everybody is going to be comfortable with being hugged.”

4.   Practice self-care and personal reflection

In response to a crisis, there are often two primary responses, explains Swetland. The first is to rise to the occasion. The second is to resist or deny what’s happening. With both responses, there is a tendency to hide from how we’re feeling. Now that we’re weaning ourselves off of survival mode, “we’re going to need to go inward,” advises Swetland. “Our emotions never go away, so we have to do a little bit of self-care after we’re in crisis mode. Right now, these emotions may be catching us off guard. We didn’t realize they were there. They’re coming up now that there is less of a threat.”

Because the “pandemic was a constantly evolving moving target,” says Swetland, we’ve not had many natural opportunities to relax and check in with ourselves. If you can relate to this feeling, perhaps it’s time you asked yourself these questions:

  • How have I grown?
  • How have I changed?
  • What have I learned?
  • What am I willing to do differently?

5.   Take in new experiences with curiosity

That old phrase, “you don’t know what you have ’til it’s gone” is really relevant right now, says Swetland. “We’re noticing things we haven’t before.” Maybe you’re noticing a variety of small things—like which books are cycling through the Little Free Library on your street corner, which trees are the last to flower and which birds are nesting in your neighbor’s yard. Maybe you’re starting to appreciate the faces of the people you encounter—now that you’re actually seeing them unmasked. Swetland says, “The acclimation period is one we can enjoy. There are some aspects of it that can really be relished. Things will feel new.”

Reentry is new territory for all of us. We don’t know what this “new normal” will look like or how long the rules will apply. But, that’s okay. Over the last year and a half, we’ve had a lot of practice with not knowing. Right now, there’s a lot to celebrate. So take your time and enjoy your process of reentry.

Photo by Hans-Jurgen Mager on Unsplash