‘New normal’ brings hope and fear

Does the thought of pulling out your office wardrobe fill you with excitement or dread? How about being around colleagues or classmates again? Or, gasp, attending a live event, with crowds. Wherever you are on the scale of emotion, you’re not alone. We asked psychologist Megan Call, director of U of U Health’s Resiliency Center and assistant professor with the department of Psychiatry, to help us understand the mixed emotions we might be feeling and to give us some tips to build our resiliency and prepare for changes ahead. 

Some can't wait to get back to campus, and others are really anxious about it. How can we be more empathetic and understanding of the varying perspectives?

One of the most challenging aspects of where we are at in the pandemic is that everyone seems to be in a slightly different place – mentally and emotionally. This variability in our current experience is reflected in models that depict a community’s response to a disaster. We have been through so much this past year. Between the pandemic, racial and economic injustices, political strife, and the natural disasters we experienced, it makes sense that some people are ready to return to work and gain some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy while others would prefer the comfort and control of working from home right now.

I imagine that many are hoping for a combination of both. The important thing is for us to recognize that all of us have experienced the past year both similarly and differently and all of these experiences have equal value. If we begin asking ourselves questions like, “What’s wrong with me?” or “What’s wrong with them?” This to me is a sign that it is time to pause and investigate what the comparison is really about. Compassion, patience, respect and grace will continue to be key ingredients for how we interact with ourselves and others as we transition into the next phase of the pandemic.

Why does thinking about the transition out of pandemic life invoke conflicting feelings for many people?

This conflict is a very normal reaction to what has been a very abnormal, unchartered, uncertain and unpredictable year. We have adapted our lives in response to the threat of something we cannot see. For many of us, safety has meant staying home, limiting our social interactions and being vigilant about washing our hands, wearing a mask, and maintaining distance between others when we are in public.

We stayed away from loved ones because we did not want to hurt them or ourselves. We have lived in a protective mode for months. Now, with the vaccine, we are in a place where guidelines and safety protocols may be changing. Even though we know this logically, it is going to take time for our nervous systems to readjust and stop treating all people and places as potential threats. Some of the simplest things we can do with this internal conflict is acknowledge it, allow space for what we feel, try to understand what the conflict is about, and continue to take good care of ourselves.

What are some steps we can take to emotionally prepare  for changes ahead whether it be returning to campus, traveling, or socializing in groups again?

We would all likely benefit from reflecting on how we are doing right now, what we need, and what is most important for us going forward. Reflecting in this way will help us clarify next steps and allow us to be more intentional in our decision-making. For instance, my extended family was supposed to go to Disneyworld in 2020. When we revisited the idea of making the trip this summer, we decided that we were not ready for that type of adventure but would instead prefer spending time together at one of our homes.

As we begin venturing out more and making changes to our work routine, giving ourselves permission to be flexible, to feel surprised by our experience, to speak up and set boundaries when needed, and to ask for help will make adapting to this next phase much easier.

What can leaders do to help their teams "re-acclimate" to whatever their work situation will be over the next 6-12 months?

Open, flexible, empathic, transparent leadership with clear and frequent communication is as important now as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. Nationally, many working individuals currently report experiencing high levels of stress and burnout and also a significant increase in their job demands. Now is an excellent time for leaders and teams to collectively reflect on how to proceed forward with work and how they want to interact as a group.

Recent research suggests that protective factors for workplace burnout include having a manageable workload, feeling a sense of purpose, feeling like mental health can be discussed at work, having an empathetic supervisor, and having a strong connection to family and friends. Infusing these factors into department and team strategy will emphasize a culture of well-being as we continue to navigate the next steps of working during a time of uncertainty.

The events of the past year have kept us all on our toes, and moving forward there are no certainties. How can we become more resilient and hone our coping skills for the unknowns ahead?

It is important to recognize that we have experienced a collective trauma. All of our lives are different than they were a year ago. This means that we all need to make time to grieve our losses and recover. It also means that we all have the opportunity to experience post-traumatic growth, where we personally feel stronger and have a greater sense of purpose, connection and an increased openness to new possibilities.

This is first accomplished by taking care of ourselves and doing simple things to restore our reserves – use our vacation time, actually take breaks during work, reset our boundaries, and get support from loved ones and mental health resources. Once we feel our stress level settle, then we can reflect and rebuild.

Some of my favorite reflection questions for rebuilding include: What have we learned from the past year? How can we harness these insights to better contribute to our communities? Where do we continue to find optimism and hope?

U mental health and wellness resources: