Wellness Wednesday: How We Are Navigating Our Return to Normal

From March 2020 through Friday, my husband and I ate only what I prepared for us at home. I’m pleased to have managed our nutrition very well, and our recent bloodwork shows that we are holding our own against disease. I’ll write a post on nutrition another time to share some of the recipes and cooking tips I picked up along the way.

Today, however, I have to write that …. we broke out and ate at not just one but two restaurants this week. One was just okay, and the other was a homecoming.

Comfortably locked in for a year

The pandemic locked us in, and we got habituated to those limits. We found ourselves enjoying each other’s 24/7 company — not a surprise, but what a bonus after 40 years — and engaging outdoors at a distance with neighbors. I didn’t miss outside society very much at all. In fact, I’d decided that hermit living was just my style, or perhaps it was the idea of breaking out of our self-imposed limits that made me anxious.

Many of us have gotten very comfortable with the safety that our isolated environments have provided and taking these initial steps out of our safe, home-controlled environments can cause fear and anxiety.

Dr. Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Hard-wired for fear

Coming on the heels of a slow recovery from my near-death 2019 illness, the pandemic terrified both of us. The unseen enemy lurked everywhere. We adopted strict cleansing habits. Masks, gloves, and bottles of disinfectant popped up on counters and cabinets around the home and in the car. It was war.

Because our brains have evolved to encode fear so well, it’s hard to turn off.

Kirsten Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Taking baby steps toward old behavior

I walked into a grocery store for the first time in nearly a year when we got our first vaccine. The Publix pharmacy was near the bread aisle, and I will associate the sweet scent of dough with freedom for the rest of my life.

When we were fully vaccinated and outdoors, we began to relax around others. I went to Target, to Publix, to the post office. Not all at once, but here and there.

The way to work through anxiety is to take very small steps forward and expose yourself to manageable amounts of anxiety.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

One giant step into a restaurant

Then came last week, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people could go maskless. Our daughter’s visit coincided with that announcement, and I made reservations — at an outdoor table — at our old favorite weekly dinner place.

It was the first time I’ve had mahi-mahi since the pandemic hit. And blue cheese dressing. And anything someone else cooked.

My family enjoyed an outdoor dinner at Bimini Twist in West Palm Beach

Choosing to keep new patterns

Still, that dinner did not feel like a homecoming. I hadn’t missed dining among strangers, and that included the wait staff, none of whom were our old regulars. Things change over 15 months. Including us.

A lot of people have found that this year has really allowed them to slowdown, to let go of things, to create new patterns and ways of being.

Marni Chanoff, integrative psychiatrist at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School

Two days later, we hit a homerun at our favorite breakfast place, where Latino sisters welcomed us back like family. Oh, how we’d worried about them. Other than being unemployed for three months, they and theirs are all well. Tucking in to a hearty Mediterranean omelet and homemade bread, I knew we were on our way to a new normal.

For a lot of people, it’s going to take some time to readjust to a new norm that isn’t quite pre-pandemic but getting closer.

Dr. John Whyte, chief medical director of WebMD.

How are you handling this phase of our unprecedented life?