How to Navigate a Complicated Post-Pandemic World

4 tips for moving forward with compassion for yourself and others

What life will look like after the COVID-19 pandemic

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

It seems every conversation we have these days, whether with strangers, co-workers, family, or best friends, eventually circles around the COVID-19 pandemic.

In spring 2020, those conversations were panic-stricken, rife with grief, and full of uncertainty. Then, as time marched on and the reality of our “new normal” set in, conversations began to pivoting to topics like coping, making the best of what we have, and trying to keep others safe.

Now, a full year after living with the coronavirus at the front and center of our world—and effective vaccines making the rounds—new conversations are happening.

With the end of this torturous roller coaster in sight, many of us are trying to figure out what life will look like after COVID-19 and how we ought to transition to this new reality.

From dealing with varying comfort levels among friends and family to managing anxiety in large crowds to balancing fuller social calendars, here are some tips for how to best move forward—while keeping your personal mental health needs and compassion for others front and center. 


Prioritize Your Mental Health

We know based on data from previous pandemics that the mental health reverberations are felt long after the physical disease has diminished.

“Even before the pandemic, depression, anxiety, and attention-related disorders were already at epidemic levels—not to mention chronic stress and burnout,” says Cortland Dahl, PhD, a Buddhist scholar and research scientist for the Center for Healthy Minds. “The toll the pandemic has taken on our mental health is likely to carry forward, long after we reach a level of herd immunity and we are physically safe.”

There’s a silver lining, though. First, this experience is collective; you’re not alone in your thoughts and feelings. Additionally, Dr. Dahl says that people are aware of the mental health crisis more than ever and that resources are widely accessible.

Even if you don’t explicitly feel beat down or burnt out, taking advantage of these resources and prioritizing your mental health can only bring good things.  

Explore meditation apps, take up a yoga practice, explore in-person or online therapy, and talk with others who are very likely experiencing similar thoughts and feelings to your own.


Accept That We All Move at Different Paces

In the months, and perhaps even years, to come, you will undoubtedly interact with others who have a different comfort level than you do. Some may feel more cautious about jumping back into normal life, while others seem to zoom ahead.

“It will be harder for some than others to simply flip a switch from ‘lockdown mode’ to normalcy within a period of weeks after being fully vaccinated,” notes Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University. “For those who fall into the latter group, [it’s important] to take baby steps to reintegrate themselves into their former social and work lives.”

To that end, Dr. Dahl stresses that this transition—whatever it might look like—will require a great deal of patience, sensitivity, and understanding.  

“None of us has been through this before, so none of us will really know what our first party or our first time in a crowded public space will be like until we’re right in the middle of things,” he says.

Cortland Dahl, PhD

To navigate this transition skillfully, we all need a high degree of self-knowledge and self-compassion. We’ll need to recognize the warning signals when our threat response is getting triggered and give ourselves the time and space we need.

— Cortland Dahl, PhD

Dr. Dahl suggests taking note of when you compare yourself to others and recognize that the best path forward is the one that works for you—not your neighbor. Consider this phase an opportunity to build empathy and self-awareness and strengthen your connection to your core values.


Ease Into Situations That Create Anxiety

Jumping right into the deep end once you are vaccinated might work for some people, but if you feel anxiety about stepping back into “normalcy,” then take it slow.

This includes social events, travel, shopping, and dining out. Instead of making your first outing a packed bar or a trip to Vegas, start with an outdoor restaurant during non-peak hours.  

“It’s a matter of gradually exposing yourself to a situation you think you fear (or you know you fear) to see that nothing ‘bad’ is going to happen," says Dr. Hafeez. "Once you gain confidence from the smaller situation, you can move on to a larger situation,”

As far as navigating social invitations, this is where that empathy, understanding, and self-compassion will come into play. If you’re not quite comfortable accepting an invitation, Dr. Hafeez recommends practicing vulnerability and being forthright about that.  

“Be as honest and open as you can about how you are feeling emotionally and why you have to decline a certain situation at this time,” she says. “If you speak to the host, at least they feel you are making some effort to attend, and you are explaining why the indoor situation makes you uncomfortable.”  

And sure, you might get a response that’s not as compassionate as you’d like. Practicing understanding here is important, too. It helps to reassure the invitee that you miss them or that you’re really looking forward to seeing them when you’re feeling more at ease.


Be Careful of Stifling Yourself

While everyone moves at their own pace and the best approach to an anxiety-creating situation is to take it slow, there’s some counterbalance required, as well. Keeping scientific and medical recommendations in mind, it’s important to re-integrate yourself back into the world. 

"There are some very solid, evidence-based strategies for managing anxiety, including the fear and panic we might feel when we find ourselves out in public in social spaces again. One very powerful method is called ‘de-centering,’ which is a key ingredient of mindfulness," says Dr. Dahl.

He elaborates, “Paradoxically, the point is to accept [your anxieties] and explore them, rather than trying to get rid of them. For instance, we might notice the feelings in our body when our threat response gets triggered, or that there is a flood of fearful thoughts churning through our mind.”  

Dr. Dahl says that the key is curiosity and intention versus judgment and dismissal. This allows us space to see that our reactions and impulses don’t have to define or control us. With practice, we simply learn to see them arise and then fade without getting swept into their heat. 

“As we move back into our social relationships and interactions, it will be very important to know our limits and boundaries,” says Dr. Dahl. “If we push too far, too fast, it might set us back. On the other hand, some degree of discomfort is healthy and normal. The key will be to trust ourselves and know when to push forward and when to back off.” 

Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how you can build mental strength after the pandemic.

Follow Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

A Word From Verywell

None of us know what our new, “new normal” will look like. In the face of uncertainty, practicing self-care, prioritizing our wellness, and moving at our own pace with respect to others is the best we can do.

Be mindful of your anxieties and get curious about them so you can overcome them, and award others grace and compassion as they figure out their own way to move forward.

"If we handle this well, our transition back to 'normal' life has the potential to be a tremendous learning experience,” says Dr. Dahl.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.