Get Ready for the Reentry Crash
After a period of prolonged stress, it’s normal to feel too drained to do anything
When my son boarded the school bus for the first time, bounding up the steps with a huge, goofy grin on his face, I felt something I hadn’t expected. It wasn’t joy. It wasn’t sadness. It was the unmistakable sensation of pent-up energy draining from my body.
For months, I had been in high-gear planning mode, picking out supplies and new clothes for my son, making sure he felt ready for kindergarten, emotionally preparing myself and our family for the change ahead. That’s how I typically function in stressful situations: I delegate; I gather resources; I encourage other people.
Then the first day came, and I headed home from the bus stop to sink into the couch — and stay there. I’d been looking forward to having time to myself again, to work uninterrupted and finish projects around the house with no kids around. Instead, I spent the first few weeks of the school year unfocused, uninterested in doing much at all. It took me the better part of September to totally feel like myself again.
Many of us are staring down a similar situation right now. Early on in the pandemic, explains Natalie Dattilo, PhD, a psychologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, we faced sudden, acute stress, which we channeled into action mode: buying toilet paper, sewing cloth masks, baking sourdough bread. We’ve been “surviving” at full velocity, and when a shred of normalcy returns — whether that means fully settling into our quarantine routines or slowly returning to the world — we may find our energy suddenly plummeting.
“Your nervous system has been completely overtaxed with this sudden and dramatic change of living in survival mode,” Dattilo says. After that long period of hyper-activation, the nervous system will inevitably seek balance, a process known in biology as homeostasis. That’s where the crash comes in.
“All of that hyperactivity will very naturally evolve into the opposite: being under activated, under focused, moving and thinking more slowly,” she says. “Now that the initial threat has been mitigated in some ways, your system is just trying to slow down to recalibrate itself by restoring some balance and rest.”