“What lies behind us, and what lies before us, are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
— Henry Stanley Haskins
The sun shining in my windows rouses me before my alarm clock goes off, and I roll out of bed. After navigating around Elsa, my 3-year-old poodle, who is now sprawled across both sides of the bed (neither designated as hers), I make it to my dresser and pull out my workout clothes. I am a creature of habit and my workout routine is consistent. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I constructed a home gym and participated in Zoom and YouTube classes. Body Pump on Mondays and Fridays. Step on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Yoga in between. The only class I did not do from home was cycle which was replaced with outdoor cycling during good weather. It was not perfect, but it kept my body moving and my mind clear. Following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommended two-week wait after my last COVID-19 vaccination, I resumed my gym workouts, now masked and physically distanced.
That was until this week. I entered the gym, swiped my membership fob, and grabbed a towel. However, I noticed that the people behind the desk were smiling. SMILING! I realized that no one (except me) was wearing a mask. I looked up sheepishly and asked, “Are we clear to take off the mask?” The smiles and head nods continued. The CDC’s latest recommendations indicate that fully vaccinated people can meet both indoors and outdoors without masks. In twenty-four hours, my gym responded by lifting all capacity and mask restrictions. I took off my mask and walked to my class, where the taped Xs on the floor to promote physical distancing had already been removed. I set up my equipment in my usual location and waited as others trickled into class, each with a smile — and reservation. “I feel naughty not wearing my mask,” one person stated. “Is it weird that I still feel I need to stand 6 feet away from you?” another inquired. Even the instructor acted a bit disoriented around the new mandate. I watched as everyone navigated the change — such an abrupt turnabout from a year of fear, spent masking, distancing and washing to protect ourselves from a virus that changed our lives as we knew them.
The past year has been one of unprecedented circumstances. We have navigated lockdowns, a toilet paper shortage, remote work and virtual school. We have experienced loss—disconnection from family and friends, total disruption of routine and the loss of loved ones (see “Counseling Connoisseur: Navigating the losses of COVID-19”). Holidays and vacations were replaced with Zoom gatherings and staycations. The politicizing of the pandemic amplified confusion and fear.
There appeared to be some reprieve with the lifting of restrictions afforded by the distribution of the vaccine (see “Counseling Connoisseur: Hope in action and mental health“). However, we are far from being “back to normal.” Vaccination distribution continues with simultaneous bipartisan banter. Mask mandates have been relaxed, and we are left feeling both relieved and vulnerable. School and work are returning to brick-and-mortar spaces but with jubilation, but also reservation. As we return to some semblance of pre-COVID-19 life and routines, we are left with the fallout from the chaos of not only the pandemic but also the heated struggle against racial injustice and the violent insurrection on January 6.
As trauma therapists, we recognize that we cannot be expected to resume pre-COVID activities at full capacity. It will take time and work to re-integrate to the increase in sensory demand, schedule capacity and social engagement. We can help our clients and one another understand the changes and aid in a trauma informed re-entry. Here are a few tips:
- Prepare for sensory demand: I was astonished at how even a drive on a major highway seemed daunting after a year in which my commute consisted of walking down the hallway to my makeshift office and an occasional outing to the park. I had basically stayed in a one-mile radius: grocery, gas station, home. Now I was traversing several lanes of traffic at high speeds and getting re-acquainted with reading road signs along the way. Allow the time and space to re-acclimate to the sensory demand.
- Pace schedule capacity: A common conversation topic of late has been how the pandemic allowed us to rethink our schedules. Limited were the board meetings, book clubs and sports events. Optional activities were removed from our often-overbooked planners. Many people have commented on how the pandemic reinforced the importance of downtime that allowed people to spend time with their household members, take leisurely hikes in nature or simply reboot at home. With the excitement of re-entry comes the anticipation of the return to overloaded schedules. Now is the time to rethink those commitments. Set boundaries. Say no and give someone else an opportunity to make that bake sale cake or lead that community project. It is OK to step back from or choose not to re-enter the climate of busyness.
- Plan for social re-engagement: I am currently writing this on my first airplane flight in a year and a half. I am heading to see my daughter, son-in-law and grandson. Fully vaccinated (yet still masked for travel), I cannot wait to hug my kids and enjoy just being with them. Yet, I know there will be momentary awkwardness as we remove our masks and re-engage. Oh, it will only be for a nanosecond, then I will kiss their whole faces — but that nanosecond is real! Except for virtual gatherings and get-togethers with our small bubble of family and friends, most of us have not witnessed real smiles and received real hugs in over a year. It may take time to adjust to social engagement. If you are returning to your workplace and encountering clients or co-workers, prepare to take time to just re-connect. Smiles, greetings, small talk. Allow for mask-wearing as you and others feel the need (or are still mandated). The art of connection is the counselor’s bailiwick. However, even we may need to allow additional “warm-up” time as we resume face-to-face sessions. Consider continuing to offer telehealth/virtual gatherings as you can allow for a safe return.
It has been a challenging time. While we are moving in a direction of healing, we are not there yet. There is still so much more to be cognizant of and prepare for as we return to our work, school and social lives. We are resilient and as counselors, we can help our family, friends and clients better acclimate in a trauma-informed way by helping them to prepare for sensory demand, pace schedule capacity and plan for social re-engagement.
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling. Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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