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For the past year, we’ve been dreaming of who we would see and what we would do when the pandemic and lockdown finally ends. But… surprise! For many, the year has been filled with traumatic experiences that will hang on long after the quarantine has lifted. For others, particularly introverts, they’ve settled into a comfortable routine and aren’t exactly looking forward to returning to the hustle and bustle of daily life. But even for the most socially active people, meeting up and having contact with old friends we haven’t seen in a year can be… well… weird.

According to a survey performed by the Center for Disease Control in 2020, nearly 41 percent of adults in the country have been struggling with mental illness or substance abuse, and 31 percent reported being anxious or depressed. So in short, if you’re experiencing some sort of post-pandemic dread, you’re not alone.

Lots of people have questions about re-entering society in the coming weeks and months, and luckily, there are answers. Polling friends and readers of the Mercury, we’ve gathered a few common, anxiety-related, real life questions, and have enlisted the help of Licensed Professional Counselor Shelley McLendon with Portland’s Bridge City Counseling to offer some much-needed advice. You may very well find some solace in her answers, or at the very least realize that many others are finding this situation “weird” as well.

QUESTION: “I can’t wait to get back out into society and rejoin everyone, yet at the same time I’ve built a pretty comfortable existence for myself, and the thought of seeing people again freaks me out. Why am I feeling these two things at once?”

McLENDON: Have you ever watched a video of an animal being set free in the wild after being held in captivity? When that cage door opens, facing out toward the forest/tundra/whatever, animals exhibit a variety of responses. Some animals take off and don't look back. Other animals have grown to like the safety of captivity and refuse to leave the cage even though the door is wide open. And some animals are more tentative: over and over they slowly leave the cage, but then return to it. Eventually these animals leave the cage completely for their natural habitat, but they do it in their own time. This sounds like you. You can like the idea of being out in the world but also like being at home. And you may find yourself living life quite differently than you did before your year of “captivity.” And that’s okay.

“I’m suddenly very awkward at meeting people out in public. How can I get over this?”

SO MANY PEOPLE are feeling awkward right now! And how could they not after the year we've had? If you want to reduce those awkward feelings around people, try this:

1. Go easy on yourself. You've been under extreme stress on almost a daily basis for over a year.

2. Have a sense of humor about it. When you find yourself saying or doing something that makes you feel weird, laugh about it! Because it's probably hilarious.

3. Remind yourself that the person you’re interacting with is probably feeling just as awkward—and then talk about it! Say something like, "I don't know about you, but being locked up for a year has made my social skills a little rusty." This will probably put both of you at ease.

4. Keep on trying and remind yourself: You haven't forgotten how to do this, you just need to get back on the bike.

“What are the chances of society being mentally ready to bounce back after everyone is fully vaccinated? Is the trauma of what happened going to be weighing on us for a while?”

I would need a lot more space to discuss these two questions fully, but in a nutshell: As with most emotional experiences, the trauma of this year is measured on a spectrum and everyone falls somewhere on that spectrum. It makes sense, then, that an individual's response to and recovery from this past year will also fall on a spectrum.

So is society "mentally ready to bounce back?" Some people have been ready for a year, some are not yet ready, and "bouncing back" can be defined in so many different ways. For many people this will be a long-term rather than a short-term reality. Will the trauma be "weighing on us for a while?" For many people…yes.

There’s a lot we still don't know yet about how we will recover, because we've never experienced a year like this. What we do know:

• Whatever you give energy to grows, including healing and recovering.

• The grieving process takes as long as it takes.

• We are all going to need patience for ourselves and for each other as we try to get back to a sense of normalcy.

• If you need help… ask for it. If you can give help… look for ways you can.

“Thanks to the pandemic, I’m now drinking too much and smoking too much weed. How do I dial that back?”

Alcohol and weed are quick and easy ways to calm that nervous system, so it’s no surprise that many people have seen an increase in their use this year. However, if you’re feeling the need to get your use in check, follow these steps:

1. Join the club.

2. Evaluate what "too much" means for you. If you need some assistance in figuring this out, the Alcohol Use Identification Test (or AUDIT) and the Cannabis Use Disorder Test (or CUDIT) are self-administered, and they can help you evaluate if your use has entered unhealthy territory. They can be found at auditscreen.org and mycannabisiq.ca respectively.

3. Figure out how much you want to ideally drink or smoke.

4. Develop a plan to get there, which may include getting professional help. If you feel like you can’t do this on your own, there are many resources and people who can help. A good place to start will be through your insurance carrier website (if you are insured), oregon.gov, or at SAMHSA.gov.

5. If you’re feeling embarrassed or ashamed—don't. This year kicked our asses. You are doing your best.

“I’ve made a lot of positive changes during COVID (like taking long walks, talking more to my extended family, and cutting down on driving), but I’m afraid I’m going to get sucked back into the busy-ness of life, and that really worries me.”

That’s great you were able to develop habits that are positive! And you’re wise to think about how these might change when your schedule gets busier—but also know the longer you practice something, the more you reinforce it. You may find that these new behaviors are now a solid part of your routine, and that you will naturally adjust your schedule around them. Keep one eye on these new habits as your life gets busier and make a commitment to continue practicing them.

“I want to send my kid back to summer camp later this summer, and even though it will be much safer by then, he is very anxious and scared of seeing adults and other kids without masks. Should I gently push or just skip it this year?”

We want to validate our kids' emotions while also helping them move forward and continue to live their lives. In deciding on how much to push your child when it comes to anxiety-producing situations like summer camp, here are some tips:

1) Include your kid in the decision-making process, and don't be tied to the outcome. Pressuring them to make the choice you want them to make will only increase their anxiety.

2) Ease into it. I don't recommend going straight from a year of lock down into a week or two of sleepaway camp. Plan some outings where your child can get comfortable being around other people, but then can return home. Host a sleepover for him and his buddies. Go camping with other families for a weekend. It will become clear if they’re ready for camp this summer or if they need to wait until next year.

3) Also ask your kid what would help them feel better about going to camp. Do they need more information on vaccines? Do they need to be able to wear a mask even if no one else is? Kids often know what they need—they just need to be asked.

••••

Shelley McLendon is a licensed professional counselor with the state of Oregon and has been practicing since 2003. She feels honored to be among the many mental health workers who continue to help people through this bananas year and is inspired by the resiliency she has witnessed. She can be found at Bridge City Counseling in Southeast Portland.