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In March 2020, most of the globe reluctantly embarked on a social experiment. We changed our behaviours in the hopes of slowing the spread of a new virus. We learned what life was like without seeing our friends and families. We prioritized public health above all else. After 16 months, the “new normal” became routine.

Now, as restrictions begin to lift around the world, we test our reactions to a new situation: We must learn to reintegrate back into society. But it’s not as simple as tossing our masks in the trash and heading back to the office. And it’s not yet clear if the world we enter will be the same one we left behind.

Adam Abba-Aji

Adam Abba-Aji

“It’s going to be a culture shock,” says Adam Abba-Aji, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Alberta. While some facets of COVID culture may linger, others will get phased out. But when? And how?

Abba-Aji helps us prepare for a new period of uncertainty.

You’re not the same person you were before the pandemic

We’ll likely adjust better to the post-pandemic norms than we did entering into the pandemic, says Abba-Aji. When COVID-19 hit, there was no time to prepare. Schools were closed overnight and office workers threw together makeshift work spaces. But over the past many months, we’ve learned about the virus, witnessed the mobilization of vaccines and have heard governments’ plans for reopening.

“We are being prepared for it,” says Abba-Aji, who is also a medical lead of integrated youth service initiatives and addiction and mental health with Alberta Health Services.

The experiences of the pandemic have also made people more resilient, he says. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. “Our brains have learned that [the pandemic] is a period of difficulty,” he says.

But here’s the good news: After nearly a year and a half of rolling with the punches, we’re better equipped to handle the challenges of reintegration.

The transition to the new ‘new normal’ will be gradual

The pandemic has taught us to be vigilant when it comes to cleanliness and health. “That part of it is not just going to go away out of the blue,” Abba-Aji says.

For most of us, wearing face masks, washing our hands and physically distancing from others became routine. “We accepted these as the new culture,” he says. So much so that, for some, seeing crowds in the stands of old sporting events or watching characters touch on TV makes them cringe.

Although restrictions are lifting gradually in many parts of the world, the pandemic isn’t over. Variants of concern, low vaccination numbers in some regions and talk of third doses mean that many will likely hang onto some pandemic habits for a while longer, even if they aren’t required by law.

Look for pre-pandemic clues to guide you

As restrictions disappear, so do the rules of engagement that we’ve come to rely on in social situations. If masks and physical distancing are no longer required, how do we navigate these interactions with people at various comfort levels?

“It’s going to be a big social experiment,” he says. “When you throw out your hand for me to shake, how am I going to respond to that without being seen as odd or antisocial?” But this isn’t the first time we’ve had to figure these things out. Even before the pandemic, people with different personalities, beliefs and comfort levels learned to coexist.

“Look at a lecture hall in the university. There are people who sit at the front of the row and raise their hands to ask questions. Then there are those who sit near the exit and feel more comfortable being quiet,” he says. Yet both share the space. The important thing is finding ways to interact without making people feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

The effects on mental health will vary

Many recent studies highlight the pandemic’s negative effects on mental health, including increased depression, anxiety disorders and thoughts of suicide. However, the long-term impacts could be different for everyone.

For some people, the pandemic triggered mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In these cases, the pandemic brought on illnesses in people who were already predisposed. They are more likely to continue to experience the illness even after restrictions ease, Abba-Aji says.

For others, illnesses were induced by the pandemic and these may fade as life returns to “normal,” he says. For these people, feelings of stress or hopelessness resulted directly from the circumstances of the pandemic, such as being separated from family or being afraid of a loved one getting sick. When those circumstances change, the feelings may change as well.

Look to the evidence, and don’t let fear hold you back

As we start to navigate crowds, indoor gatherings and a culture with fewer restrictions, people are going to move at different paces. For those who tend toward caution, Abba-Aji recommends seeing yourself first as a human being. “It is OK to be afraid. It is OK to carry your face mask and your little hand sanitizer,” he says.

But don’t miss out on life because of fear. “Take your time to transition slowly at a comfortable pace without missing out on the human interactions and job opportunities,” he says.

Look to science for cues on what is safe – Is the number of cases rising or reducing? Is a significant portion of the population vaccinated? – and base your decisions on the evidence.

Remember, we don’t have the all-clear yet

Just because restrictions are easing doesn’t mean we’re done with this pandemic yet. Particularly for those eager to fill up their social calendars, Abba-Aji cautions against being too reckless.

“The things that have kept us safe in the last 16 months are skills that we should continue to use until we’re totally cleared of this pandemic,” he says. Steer clear of others who have symptoms until you’re sure they’re not related to COVID-19. And stay home if you’re feeling unwell.

“If you are a social butterfly,” he says, “make sure you have two vaccines in your arm.”

| By Lisa Szabo

This article was submitted by the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

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