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A new normal: Easing into the transition back to work or school

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Over the past year and a half, we’ve experienced unprecedented changes in the way we work, connect and live. On top of the pandemic itself, our changing reality was a difficult shift that we had to adapt to. And, now that many parts of our lives are starting to return to normal, we’re having to adapt all over again.

Change of any kind can feel scary and overwhelming. With many of us returning to the office and classroom, it’s inevitable that we’re going to have mixed feelings about it. Part of you may be feeling excited and relieved about returning to aspects of pre-COVID life, while, another part of you may be feeling anxious and stressed about these upcoming changes. There’s no right or wrong way to feel about this change.

Stress and anxiety tend to accompany change, as they exist to warn us, protect us and keep us safe. It’s (literally) been dangerous and unsafe to leave our homes for the past year and a half, and it’ll take time for our body and mind to let go of these protective responses. On top of that, many of us are feeling anxious about socializing after being in isolation and stressed about returning to the busyness of pre-COVID life.

Whether or not it was your choice to return to the office or classroom, there are things you can do to ease the transition, cope with the stress and anxiety and maintain a routine that works for you.

Accept your emotions
It’s natural for the changes involved in returning to work or school to feel overwhelming. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in these feelings, and that most people (if not everyone) will be in the same boat while transitioning.

Resist the urge to suppress or push away the emotions (especially the uncomfortable ones) that are coming up for you. Pushing away our feelings usually backfires and causes them to become even more distressing. It’s when we recognize, acknowledge and label our emotions, that they start to become easier to manage. In fact, MRI scans have shown that the simple act of labelling our emotions (e.g., “I’m feeling anxious and scared right now”) significantly reduces their intensity.

So, the next time you find yourself pushing away your emotions, try moving towards them instead.

Check your thoughts
Our thoughts have a powerful impact on the way that we feel, but our thoughts don’t always fit the facts. Think back to the last time you were running late and got stuck at a red light – you probably thought “this always happens to me” or “nothing is going right today.” These thoughts most likely don’t actually represent the big picture of things, but they were formed based on your emotions at the time. So, an important part of managing stress and anxiety is becoming more aware of our thoughts.

When we’re feeling stress, anxiety or any strong emotion, some common errors tend to show up in our thinking. These usually look like over-generalizing (“I never adjust well to changes”), all or nothing thinking (“My job is completely awful because I can’t work from home anymore”), mind-reading (“I’m sure my boss is so tired of hearing how nervous I am to go back to the office”), fortune-telling (“No one is going to talk to me on the first day back”), and catastrophizing (“I’m going to catch COVID on the first day of school, have to drop out, and then I’ll never find a job”). We all engage in these thinking errors, but it’s important to catch our thoughts and check ourselves.

A good way to do this is to ask ourselves 1) What is the evidence that tells me this thought is true? And 2) What is the evidence that tells me this thought is not true? Then, once you’ve explored all the evidence available, you can use this to form a new thought that better fits the facts.

Maintain your routine
Our routines are incredibly protective in managing our mental health. They help us maintain a sense of control and better cope with the changes happening outside of our control. Just as maintaining your routine was important in adjusting to working or learning at home, it’s equally as important in adjusting back to the office or classroom.

Try your best to keep up with your normal routine outside of work and school – one that feels familiar, value-based and comforting. For me, this looks like having my morning coffee at my kitchen island, going for a walk or to the gym on my lunch break and having a bath, shower, or lighting a candle before bed. Your routine doesn’t have to be exact same every day, but as a rule of thumb, it should include at least one activity that brings you (1) pleasure, joy, or comfort (2) accomplishment or achievement, and (3) exercise/movement. Whatever your routine is, try to make sure it includes these three aspects each day.

Some parts of your routine might also be changing with the return to work or school, like your wake-up time, bedtime, or commute. Start adjusting to these changes before you actually return to the office or the classroom. If you’re able to, you could also do a dry run before you officially return. Go back to the office before your start date and take a mental note of where your parking spot is, set up your desk and sit in your chair and turn on your computer and organize your files. Or, practice the commute to school, find the location of each of your classes, and explore the building or campus until it feels familiar.

Practice self-care and boundaries
Taking care of ourselves is always important, and even more so during times of change in our lives. First thing's first - make a plan to ensure that you’re taking care of your physical needs. Bring a water bottle to the office or classroom, have snacks in your bag or at your desk, make sure you’re standing up to stretch, and take breaks when needed. Focusing on our physical needs makes it much easier to cope with our emotions and any stressors that arise. Also, be intentional about incorporating activities into your day that you enjoy, and that break up the day – listen to a podcast during your commute, visit your favourite coffee shop at lunch, and make your desk a relaxing and comforting space. On top of that, think about what you’ll need to feel safe in terms of COVID, such as keeping extra masks, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer at your desk or in your backpack.

Another important part of self-care is setting and maintaining boundaries with others. There are inevitably going to be conversations about COVID, vaccines, masks, and social distancing among co-workers and peers. Everyone is going to have different opinions and varying comfort levels around sharing their views. Take some time to think about your own boundaries and comfort levels beforehand. Once you get a sense of your boundaries, practice what you’ll want to say to others to communicate these boundaries and prepare for how you’ll handle certain questions and conversation topics.

Reach out for support
Most importantly, remember that you’re not alone in this. Workplaces and schools know that this is a stressful time, so take advantage of the support they have available to you. Check-in with your manager, HR representative, teacher, registrar, or guidance counsellor about any COVID-related policies that you want to know more about and any concerns that you have about returning. Offices may also be running peer support groups to help you adjust to the return, and school counselling centres may be holding seminars and programs to help you with the transition.

If you're struggling, MindBeacon is here to help with a variety of supports available in our Virtual Mental Health Therapy Clinic. If you are part of our Workplace Mental Health Program, please visit your company page for access to services covered by your program.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.