For months we’ve all been talking about returning to normal. We can’t wait to resume our lives and get back to the freedoms and social interactions we took for granted once before. Yet along with the isolation and upheaval of the past year came new things many aren’t quite ready to let go of or change.

In a recent Stress in America polling conducted by the American Psychological Association, half of adult Americans feel anxious and uncomfortable returning to in-person interactions. For people of color, who have experienced a disproportionate effect from events over the past year, more than half are uncomfortable with the idea of returning to life like it was before the pandemic.

There is resistance to a return to an old way of life in favor of some lifestyle changes that we’ve grown accustomed to and comfortable with, for better or worse. Along with resistance, mental anguish, anxiety, stress, fear, disappointment, and dread are underlying. There is sadness emerging from another upcoming massive change and a subsequent wave of depression on the horizon.

The potential impacts on individual lives, families, communities, and businesses are unknown and something with which we are all deeply concerned. In a simplified way, what some of us are about to experience is like heading off to college for the first time. There is this immense excitement and enthusiasm for what’s to come, the new experiences you might have, the people you’ll meet. But eventually, a wave of homesickness comes, and that high we once felt dips to an inevitable low. We miss what we were so excited to leave behind.

Now imagine a return to the workforce, to in-person events, travel, school, indoor dining, and weekends with friends. After a year of restraint, it’s rapid immersion in the way things used to be, but our minds haven’t quite caught up with what that truly means. Suddenly we want to retreat to home, skipping the office for the kitchen table, fearful of indoor activities and events.

It’s all too much, too fast, and we’re simply not ready for it. Even those who jump right back in without seemingly skipping a beat may become reticent in some ways if they are honest with themselves. Let’s face it – with all the bad from the past year, there were some good bits too.

Managing Reentry

As the pandemic first hit, chaos ensued. We scrambled to leave our workplaces and schools behind and rapidly adjust to doing it all from our homes. After more than a year of this, we got comfortable and figured out our routines. We started to like the convenience of working from home, and we relished the end to long commutes and uncomfortable office attire. Now with more than half of the American population vaccinated, reentry is upon us, and we’re ill-equipped to manage it.

However, with enough planning and preparation, as well as a good dose of honesty with ourselves and others, we can ease back into life in person. Here are some ideas for making the transition as easy as possible.

1.    Start with a Plan

Rather than tackle reentry blindly, it may help alleviate anxiety if you start preparing. Begin with what you can do today to prepare to return to in-person work and build in steps that introduce the new normal slowly but steadily.

Work from the date you know you’ll be returning to the office. Once you define actionable steps you can take up to that day, focus on how you’ll manage each day after. If you are anxious about the health aspects, be clear on how you’ll incorporate safety measures you are comfortable with and understand what your company is doing to keep you safe. If you’re more of an introvert and stressing about returning to all the social interaction, build blocks of time into your daily schedule where you can be alone and where you’ll be with others. Try and balance the two so you have some recovery time and practice good mental health practices to keep anxiety low.

At the end of each day and week, readdress your plan to ensure it’s working for you. Perhaps look for new ways to expand interaction as you go.

2.    Be Clear on What’s Different

As you think about the return, it’s important to know that not everything will be the same as before. We have learned many lessons from the past year, and we’ve incorporated numerous practices that will likely remain or be altered to accommodate a new workplace.

As you engage with your company and leadership, find out what things will be different. These differences will likely include safety measures, but also may be policies and protocols or how teams work together. There may be new rules for team meetings and the use of conference rooms. Office layout may be different, as well as desk positioning. All of this may feel like a lot of change all at once, so knowing what you’ll be up against beforehand minimizes stress.

3.    Understand What’s the Same

Along with changes, there will be things that may stay the same. Or perhaps be the same as what’s emerged over the past year. The use of video calls or masks may still be in place. A percentage of the workforce may return, but many may remain remote or partially remote.

But things that were in place before the pandemic might also remain, bringing some familiarity and potential fear, depending on what it is. Knowing in advance can help prepare, but it can also lead to an opportunity to talk to management about incorporating additional changes to make you comfortable about the return.

4.    Acknowledge Your Fears

No matter what’s the same or what is different, it’s essential to acknowledge our fears so we can face them and healthily deal with them. If you have health and safety concerns, it’s necessary to identify them to manage them. And it also may require sharing those fears with management and team members. This crisis has been a shared experience, and you likely aren’t the only one with these fears. Being open and letting others know where we are on the comfort scale can only help the entire office.

5.    Seek Out the Good

When we solely focus on the fears and the potential risks, we often remain in a state of anxiety. It’s necessary to seek out the good in the situation and look for opportunities in the new transition.

There will likely be much about our lives that will not return to the way it was—and that might be a good thing. Be on the lookout for those differences and new dynamics, looking for the opportunity in them. With change comes new life and new ideas. Innovations have come and will continue emerging from this experience. Personally and professionally, there are entries to something new and better.

6.    Communicate to Those Around You

Now is the time to be open and honest about how we are feeling or whether something is making us uncomfortable or anxious. Everyone will understand and are more likely to do what’s necessary for one another to make it better. But you must share that with others first.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to impact change by using our voice. And often, that’s when things seem almost serendipitous—when we verbalize our thoughts, ideas, or desires and suddenly a ripple effect of opportunities and situations bursts open. Be an agent of change by using your voice and communicating with those around you.

7.    Ease Back In

The nice thing about being more isolated or within our smaller circles is we also minimize the scrutiny and performance anxiety many have faced. With the explosion of social media and the constant feeling of being exposed or under the microscope, the retreat to the comfort of our homes was a welcome respite. For some, the idea of returning to total exposure only causes more anxiety.

As you create your plan, be sure to build at a pace you are most comfortable with. Try to engage a little at a time and recognize when you feel it’s too much. Incorporate practices that bring balance to your mental well-being and then expand your reach once you are ready. This is the time to control based on your comfort level and your pace. Get in the driver’s seat and pick your speed.

8.    Celebrate as You Go

Recognizing that this isn’t going to be easy and taking a moment to celebrate even the small steps and wins is essential. It may feel silly initially, but it’s an important step in healing and acclimating to the new normal. Embrace the moment to observe how resilient you’ve become. Acknowledge that you managed to sit through half a dozen in-person team meetings, and you came out the other end okay. Perhaps you may even decide to celebrate by going to lunch with a friend or teammate or having a beer with a few colleagues after work.

You may not jump right back into that sort of celebration but define what a celebratory moment looks like for you. It might be as simple as sitting by yourself for fifteen minutes, giving yourself a pat on the back, or a meditative moment. Whatever works for you. But don’t forget to commemorate those wins.

9.    Readdress the Plan

As a final step, it’s important to readdress the plan regularly to ensure it’s working for you. If you need to extend the time you incorporate certain practices, do that. If you’re finding your reentry is going far better than planned, perhaps increase a bit more of the in-person interaction. And feel free to pull back if you need to, gaging when you are ready.

As we wrap up Mental Health Awareness Month, be mindful that reentry into a new version of normal is coming, and it’s likely occurring quickly. Embrace the joy of the moment but do it on your terms. Take a moment to define your parameters, the pace you are comfortable with, and how it all works towards improving your mental health and well-being in the long term. We are all uncertain about how things will play out, so be kind to yourself. Test out situations and actions, adjust as you go, and be grateful for the opportunities and potential of the future.