California and New York lifted most pandemic-related restrictions this week and people went out in force. The joy on people’s faces was contagious as they were interviewed at water venues, amusement parks, restaurants, concerts and sports stadiums. Many shouted “it’s over!” for the cameras. Not to be a killjoy, but unfortunately, it’s not over. It’s a million times better in many places around the world, but the virus is still spreading and still mutating, so while I’m all for celebrating some very hard-earned freedoms, we still need to be aware and alert. I hope everyone who now can, thoroughly enjoys the abundance of activities open to them, but not mindlessly. We need to be mindful.
Let’s face it, it’s been a lot easier to be mindful over the past 16 months because most of us haven’t had to interact with others. Those “others” are typically the source of most of our stressors and judgment, so being locked down greatly minimized our exposure, perhaps for the first time in our lives.
Now for many, we’re re-entering public spaces and the resulting human interactions, on a massive scale, in some areas all at once. That’s a tough transition for many of us. After having so little human contact for so long, to suddenly be thrust into crowds of people in various locations can feel overwhelming.
While some of us can choose to re-emerge more slowly or selectively, many cannot due to jobs or circumstances. Now is the time to increase our mindfulness practices to ensure our well-being. I think the number one practice we need to instill in our everyday lives is self-compassion. A lot of self-judgments and judgments by others may start rising, so start with taking care of yourself.
You may have seen some of the recent disturbing behavior by people at sporting events and other public venues. It appears that some emerging from isolation have forgotten their social skills to a very drastic degree, but I think many of us are feeling some uncertainty about our own social skills. How do we behave now when we greet someone? Do we shake their hand, give them a hug, give them an elbow bump, or as in my first encounter with one someone I hadn’t seen in over a year, stand awkwardly apart? When people come to our homes, do we don masks, ask if they’re vaccinated, stay physically distanced, suggest we stay outdoors? I honestly don’t know these answers, but I am sure we’ll figure it out over time.
We’re all in different mental and emotional places. Some have had a much more difficult experience than others, losing loved ones or being ill themselves, losing jobs or businesses, or suffering through isolation or depression, while others were only minimally impacted. That’s important to keep in mind as we re-emerge. We were all placed in shutdown together, but we’re going to return to public life at very individualized and different paces. And we’re going to adjust to interacting with other people in varying ways. Even if we remain mindful, we’re about to go through a rather awkward phase as we re-learn our social skills, determine new social rules and manage the emotional uncertainty about what is and is not safe.
Then we have the pre-pandemic irritants in life returning, such as traffic. I’m about to face this one and again, self-compassion is of utmost importance because that little voice in my head is saying things like, “don’t be a baby,” because I’m a little nervous about navigating LA freeways again. I drove all over LA County every week, pre-pandemic. I typically had to fill my gas tank twice a week, had multiple tire blow-outs from potholes and road debris, spent a sizable chunk of money on parking fees, and many days, drove to and from locations for longer periods of time than I spent at the locations. That all ended in March of 2020 and since then, I’ve only filled my gas tank three times. With one exception, I drive less than 10 miles a week and some weeks, not at all. That one exception was a whopping 20 miles from home to visit a friend who had been ill, and it was during the shutdown, so there was no traffic to deal with.
While I’m so excited that I am about to see my daughter and grandchildren for the first time since this whole mess started, we’re meeting at the midpoint between our homes, which is 45 miles from my house. The drive used to take about an hour and a half each way on one of the most frustrating freeways in the world, the 405. I’ve heard that traffic is back in full swing, so am already feeling uncertain about my driving skills because they’re so rusty, mindless drivers, which there has never been a shortage of here, being in a car for so long, and, well, you get the idea. All of this is first, proof that I need to be compassionate with myself and second, that this is an excellent opportunity for me to flex my mindfulness muscles.
There’s nothing like heavy traffic or a traffic jam to trigger the stress response. Taking a deep breath helps bring more oxygen into the body and widens the space between the stimulus (traffic) and our reaction (stress). In this space we have a moment to choose how to respond. This is just as true when entering a crowded shopping mall, attending a sporting event, returning to church services or going back into a workplace.
When we feel the stress response taking over, we can ask ourselves what we need. Maybe it’s to feel safe, at ease, or to just find some relief. Realizing what we need will begin to bring a sense of balance and control, and informs our next steps. We can give ourselves what we need. If we need ease, perhaps scan the body for tension, and adjust our position a bit as we relax contracted muscles. We can offer some phrases of self-compassion, such as, “May I be at ease.” “May I feel safe.” “May I be happy.”
We can focus on really seeing others. In the case of traffic, everyone on the road wants the same things - to feel in control, to have a sense of ease, and to arrive at their destination safely. We can look around. Some drivers might look cranky, but we might catch one singing or actually smiling, which might lessen our anxiety. By looking around, we will see that they people, not just machines in our way. We can offer all of them what we just offered to ourselves: “May you be at ease.” “May you feel safe.” “May you be happy.”
Consider all of the other people in whatever situation you’re heading into. Again, they all want the same things you want. Some may have more difficulty managing their anxiety or emotions, others may have more patience, but in the end, we all have the same desires and needs, so we can practice both self- compassion and compassion for others.
With deep breathing, in 20 seconds or less, we can lighten our mood. With an emotional rush of stress, we can count silently to 90, since 90 seconds is all it takes from a physiological perspective, for the rush to subside. Perhaps most importantly, we can remember that we can only change ourselves, not others. We can consider what we can do differently to make the situation better.
There’s a lot of anxiety right now about returning to workplaces. We’ve seen the full cycle here at Work2Live, first with people being wrought with angst over being forced to work from home and with many asking for months to return to the workplace to no avail. Then a lot of time passed and now, I would estimate three quarters of the people we work with are uncomfortable with returning to the workplace. Some out of anxiety, but many because they adjusted to working from home and discovered many benefits of it, from avoiding that pesky traffic to having more time with their kids to being more productive because of fewer interruptions.
While everyone has a choice, this one’s pretty tough because for many, they want to keep their jobs. They just don’t want to return to commuting to and working in an office or hospital or other site. But all of us will have to come to terms with what our employers decide. If they want staff back on site, the choice becomes go, or find another job.
This again is the time for mindful reflection, not reactive judgment against your employer. I’ve heard lots of that recently, ranging from “the company doesn’t care about my health,” to “there’s no reason to make us return because we have shown we can do the job from home.” We can choose to make up these stories which only cause us stress, or we can neutrally observe the situation.
Companies make decisions based on a multitude of factors, most of which we know nothing about. Many employers are in fact moving to more remote work or hybrid environments, but many others are demanding that their workforce return in order to stay employed. For the latter, it’s not personal. They’re making a business decision which is based on profit or other organizational goals, period. They’ll do what is best for their business.
If you’re struggling with this scenario, perhaps start with the why. Why are you resistant to returning? Is it really about safety or is there something else going on? If you have loved working from home, perhaps it’s time to consider changing jobs or even careers. There is an abundance of learning opportunities available remotely now, so this might be a good time to start exploring what you want to do and what skills you need to build in order to achieve that.
There are lots of jobs that require being present in person. Many bartenders, servers, amusement park workers, factory employees, home visitors, non-clinical hospital workers, store clerks and more that haven’t been able to work, at least at full capacity, and are happy and relieved to be able to return to work. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some level of anxiety, not just about exposure to the virus, but about those pesky social skills. Some of us may feel like we’re no longer able to do our original jobs well. I’ve heard from some that they feel they need to be re-trained or to receive a refresher course before they go back into the workplace.
That’s understandable since we haven’t used these skills or mental muscles in a long time. But muscles have memory, so as we start returning to old routines, the brain will kick in and pull up those dormant neural connections. Again, self-compassion is the key. It’s okay to feel anxious or nervous. Deep breathing, staying aware of what’s happening both internally and externally, and taking mindful steps to meet our needs will help us ease back into our roles at work, as well as rekindle relationships with others.
Once you’ve gotten past the re-entry nerves, then you can assess the situation. Did you love your job before the pandemic? If so, that feeling is likely to return. But many did not. It was simply easier than starting something new, or it provided financial security which balanced out the dislike of the daily tasks.
Something interesting happened during the pandemic. People started considering their quality of life, some for the first time. Common questions included, “Do I want to spend the majority of my time doing this?” “Is there any meaning or purpose to my work?” And many have taken a hard look at their work/life balance. During recent coaching sessions, I’ve heard many folks declare that they are never returning to a heavy commute again, even if it means changing jobs.
With all of the downsides of the pandemic, there was this bright spot. We had time to reflect, reconsider, and discover or explore other options. Now it’s time to take mindful action. If we want to return to our pre-pandemic jobs, we have to abide by what our organization decides. If we don’t want to do that, it’s time to focus on those other options.
But here’s the catch. Before you make any decision, spend a little time on some inner exploration. Make sure you’re making your decision based on what is really best for you, not in reaction to a fear of change or to a story you’ve made up that may not be true. Don’t base decisions on misinformation from the internet or gossip that a coworker is spreading through your company. Spend a little quality time with yourself, observing the discomfort you may be experiencing and recognizing that our re-entry back into the world is a stressful experience for many and we don’t make good decisions when we’re stressed.
Get calm and centered before making any decisions. Try to look at the options from a neutral space instead of a judgmental one. If frustration or anger emerge, be self-compassionate. Remember, our egos are trying to protect us, but we can’t allow them to run the show. Focus on different scenarios and notice the body’s response. Does it feel good or uncomfortable? If uncomfortable, is it real or unchecked fear? Breathe and relax. Mind your mind.
As we begin to encounter crowds and congested traffic and awkward social interactions, keep breathing. Remember that we don’t know others’ stories. Remember that we all have the freedom to choose whether or not we get vaccinated, wear a mask or minimize exposure to others. Remember that there’s no benefit to judging others. Again, we can’t change others, only ourselves.
We’ll get there, but we have to go through what I guess could be called an adjustment period. In the meantime, this is an opportunity for all of us in parts of the world that have re-opened to celebrate, while remembering that in other parts of the world, many are still suffering. We can offer ourselves compassion as we navigate our new circumstances, and offer those struggling compassion and speedy recovery.
After all we’ve been through, we can now choose to re-emerge a little more grateful, a little more selfless and a lot more mindfully than how we departed. Let’s focus on renewal, rejuvenation and restoration for a better world for all of us. We can choose to be kind to ourselves and others to support our healing from the stress and trauma of the past 16 months and to take the lessons we’ve learned to heart. Pandemics may be out of our control, but our response to our circumstances and other people are not. We can choose to be better versions of ourselves, full of gratitude that we’re here, full of joy that we can connect with others again, and full of hope for what we can accomplish in the world.