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Coming Out of COVID: The Stress of Beginning to Return to Normalcy

By Richard Juman, PsyD, Director, TeamHealth Behavioral Health Policy and Regulations, Co-Chair, Clinician Resiliency Core Group


Mental Health Awareness Month is a time to raise awareness about mental health and well-being. Throughout the month, organizations nationwide help fight stigma, educate communities and provide support for the millions of Americans facing mental illness. This year, we want to spotlight the stress of returning to normalcy after the pandemic and how to cope with it.

Returning to Normalcy

In 2021, Mental Health Awareness Month falls at an auspicious moment, with reasons for optimism that the national nightmare of COVID-19 will continue to recede into the past.

The vaccination rollout continues, with more and more Americans ready to resume a new version of “normal.” Warmer weather and the possibility of spending more time safely outdoors will contribute to our collective growing sense of optimism and normalcy. For many, May will mean blue skies, both actually and metaphorically.

Facing Long-Lasting Mental Health Effects

But it’s unlikely that vaccines and the lifting of pandemic restrictions will be mirrored by a significant lessening of mental health challenges for the population as a whole. We know that the mental health impacts of a crisis tend to “lag” behind the concrete impacts of the crisis itself.

Psychological distress, in the form of depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction and other manifestations of mental illness are all significantly elevated now and may continue to increase as the dust settles on the crisis itself, but other pandemic-related impacts in social, economic and familial arenas are revealed.

Issues around racial equality, our relationship to law enforcement, economic inequality and other societal concerns remain at top of mind for many Americans. And the “return to normal,” although largely positive, will confront all of us with new transitions and stressors, such as returning to offices and other settings that will impose new burdens and safety concerns for those who came to appreciate the convenience and safety of working from home.

Moving Beyond the Pandemic

So it is crucial to recognize that we don’t yet know in what direction measures of psychological distress will move. We must prepare ourselves for a long-term effort to treat mental illness in our patients. Equally, we need to be on the lookout for signs of burnout, impairment and other indications of distress in ourselves and our co-workers.

Ideally, we all want to look back on the past year as a time when we operated at our highest levels, as our best selves. We want to look at this coming year as a time in which we successfully transitioned back to a more normal way of working and living. As we make this shift, it will be vital to support each other and ourselves. If you need support, please reach out for help.

For more information and resources on how to cope with the stress of returning to normalcy, read our blog post with tips to support daily emotional well-being.