Get Ready for the Reentry Crash

After a period of prolonged stress, it’s normal to feel too drained to do anything

A photo of an exhausted man laying on a sofa/bed.
Photo: laflor/Getty Images

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.”

No one can say for sure when life will return to normal, or whatever normal looks like after this. But with the right approach now, you can prevent a bigger crash later. Here are a few strategies for easing your reentry, whenever it happens.

Lower your expectations

Daydreaming about post-pandemic life might seem like a good way to pass the time, but Dattilo says adopting realistic expectations might be more effective in helping you adapt to real life, whatever it may hold. Your favorite restaurant may be out of business. Your travel vouchers may not apply to that canceled trip you want to reschedule. Friends who left town to quarantine elsewhere may decide to stay where they are for a while. Most importantly, you might not have the physical or emotional energy to reengage like you thought you would.

“We may be underappreciating the challenge of reentry, and it’s important to manage expectations,” Dattilo says. ”Not to diminish hope, but to set realistic expectations about what’s to come and how to manage it.”

Go slow

Anticipate big emotions. Aundi Kolber, a Colorado-based therapist and the author of Try Softer: A Fresh Approach to Move Us out of Anxiety, Stress, and Survival Mode — and into a Life of Connection and Joy, says it’s common for stress to manifest later on, long after the stressor is gone.

“Oftentimes, it’s not until we’re safe that our trauma shows itself, because our bodies finally have space to consider what’s actually happening,” she says. “So as you experience more safety, you may get more symptoms of the things you need to work through.”

To make sure you have the bandwidth to process your emotions, plan to take things slow. Hosting a big dinner party might sound amazing right now, but in the moment, you might find yourself overwhelmed, anxious, and wondering when your guests last washed their hands. Try dipping your toe back into socializing with a one-on-one coffee first.

And make sure you know where to find any support you may need. Make a list of friends and family who you can lean on if you start to feel steamrolled by all the demands and expectations of post-quarantine life.

Take time to process things

Start processing this stressful period now. Yes, even though we’re not yet out of it. First on the to-do list: Relinquish the expectation that you have to be functioning at 100% all the time.

“It’s less about big things and more about the small things,” says Ali Mattu, PhD, a California-based psychologist. “The small steps we take to care for ourselves and meet our emotional needs can reduce the chance of this having a big impact.”

So get some rest. Go on a walk outside while practicing appropriate physical distancing. Connect with a loved one. Drink wine in the bathtub. Whatever you can do to relieve your stress now, you’re saving yourself from a bigger pendulum swing later on.

Remember it’s temporary

It can be demoralizing to sink into a depression after a drawn-out season of stress. But remember: The stuck-to-the-couch feeling is temporary, just like the hyperactive part of the stressor.

“It’s kind of beautiful the way our bodies respond, but we may be reluctant to experience it that way because it’s really inconvenient,” Dattilo says. “But it’s really important to give yourself permission to have that reset.”

Practically speaking, embracing your window for recovery might mean staying at home and going to bed early instead of making plans, even when you can make plans again. It might mean recognizing that a vacation isn’t a great idea, even though it’s allowed. Appreciate your post-quarantining quarantine for what it is: your body’s slightly inconvenient but very normal way of taking care of you.

Writer-mom hybrid. Health & psychology stories in NYT, WaPo, Allure, Real Simple, & more.

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