8 expert tips for adjusting to the "new normal" of life in the big cities
Ever since I left my apartment in Brooklyn to quarantine in my family home in Kansas, my mom has been marking the time on a chalkboard sign on our fridge. “WFH Week 12 COVID-19,” it reads now. When I first came home, I thought I’d be here for a month or two, tops, before heading back to New York to be with my friends, job, and “normal” life. I now understand that this thinking was a symptom of denial stemming from the grief I was feeling at leaving behind my life in N.Y.C.—but as I prepare to go back to the city this month (because my lease is expiring and I have to move), I’m already grieving the life I’m leaving behind in Kansas.
Though moving back home wasn’t a flawless transition, I’ve found it easier than expected to appreciate all the things I have here that I don’t have in Brooklyn. Knowing that I can step outside and still be a front, back, and side-yard’s distance from the nearest person, for instance, gives me a sense of control that I couldn’t access when living in the epicenter of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. I can easily also grab my sisters’ car keys and go for a drive when I need to go somewhere rather than worrying about riding the subway. Plus, here in Kansas, I have a window in my room (one that isn’t facing a brick wall), a kitchen table, my mom’s shoulder for a good cry, and plenty of space to be alone when I need it.
So as I gear up to head back to the city, I can already feel my anxiety rising. I’m worried about the risk of getting physically sick, but even more, I’m worried about my mental health, as I’ll be removed from so many of the things that have been maintaining it over the past few months. To learn how to make my transition back to New York a bit easier, I decided to talk with mental health experts and get their advice. Here’s what they have to say.
1Don’t compare the past, present, and future.
When I explained my situation to Dr. Carla Manly, licensed clinical psychologist and wellness expert, I told her that I expected my anxiety to be much worse in New York because of the city’s higher rate of coronavirus infection—and, thus, my experience there to be much worse than in Kansas. Yet as Dr. Manly notes, comparing the way things were to how they are or will be is not healthy or productive. “If we get stuck in the way [life] ‘used to be,’ that is our greatest enemy,” she explains.
In fact, comparing situations can perpetuate negative thoughts and keep us from seeing the good. “We get into a belief that the old way was better when perhaps the new way, if we’re very conscious about it, can actually in some ways be superior,” Dr. Manly says.
In Brooklyn, I’ll be back with my roommates and friends, I’ll have access to my full closet of clothes, I’ll be able to order carryout from some of my favorite local restaurants, and I’ll have the ability to enjoy time on my rooftop and appreciate the Manhattan skyline from afar—all things that make me feel happy.
2Incorporate peaceful elements into your city life.
It’s important to stay in the present and focus on ways you can make your current life, in whatever location, as comfortable as possible. If you are transitioning back from the sheltered suburbs to a busy city like I am, Dr. Manly recommends finding ways to incorporate things you enjoyed from wherever you were quarantining to where you’ll be moving forward. This can look like choosing to take frequent walks, putting more greenery inside your living space, doing more cooking, or even finding a way to spend more time with animals if you were living with pets before.
Anxiety is normal, especially in the midst of a global health crisis. “Anxiety comes from fear, unpredictability, and the unknown of what’s going to happen,” Diana Anzaldua, licensed clinical social worker and trauma therapist, tells HelloGiggles. Try not to feel shame or embarrassment at feeling anxious; instead, work to normalize, understand, and better manage your anxiety.
Dr. Manly recommends “having a conversation” with your anxiety. This means looking in during anxious moments and asking yourself questions like, “Is this a feeling of danger? Or is it simply unfamiliar?” When transitioning to various aspects of life post-pandemic, there will be a lot of new territory, and if you can distinguish feelings of uncertainty from those of danger, you can look anxiety straight on and have more control over it.
4Think about what you can do to stay safe.
If you’re afraid of being in a crowd or around people who aren’t taking safety precautions, ask yourself: “What can I do to keep myself safe?” Then, follow those steps to the best of your ability. You can also pose this question to others; if you’re returning to work in person, advises Anzaldua, ask your employer what they’re doing to keep you safe and what protocols they’re taking so that you know what situation you’re walking into.
You can also reframe some of your anxious thoughts to be more action-focused. Anzaldua recommends that instead of thinking, I’m going to get sick, for instance, you can shift that thought to, I’m going to do everything I can to keep myself safe.
5Lay out your options.
Identifying your choices in any situation is a big part of managing your stress and anxiety, Dr. Manly says. “The minute we feel that we have choice, the psyche tends to do better,” she explains. “It might not be that we have the greatest choices, maybe the options aren’t ideal, but at least we know we are making a decision.”
For example, if you’re traveling, lay out your options for transportation, create a pros and cons list, and then choose the method that feels safest for you. If you decide to fly, consider the ways you feel safest getting home from the airport, whether it’s taking a bus, calling an Uber, or getting a ride from a friend. If you drive, consider where and how often you’ll stop along the way or if camping out is an option.
Emphasizing the instances where you do have choices can relieve the anxiety from situations where you don’t. It’s all about getting yourself back to a place of control in a time where things feel so far out of your hands. Anzaldua recommends asking yourself, “How can I be in control right now?” and then responding with things like, “I can control my breathing. I can control whether I wash my hands. I can control whether I stand in a crowded room or I opt to go to a room where there’s not a lot of people.”
6Don’t stress out your system.
Managing your anxiety is part of managing your overall health and wellbeing. “When we stress our system by worrying about the future that we cannot control, we increase adrenaline and cortisol and we decrease our immune response,” Dr. Manly says. When you worry about the many things that could go wrong, you’re not centered in your body. Avoiding this isn’t as easy as telling yourself not to stress and then moving on, of course, but there are some simple practices you can take to ground yourself. Anzaldua recommends three exercises (that you can do anywhere, anytime) for grounding yourself and tapping into a mindset of peace:
- Box breathing: This is a simple breathwork exercise in which you inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, and repeat. You can picture each four-second interval making up the side of a box. We breathe all day long, Anzaldua says, but “what we’re not doing all day long is we are not holding that breath. We are not being in control of that breath. And so doing this breathing [exercise] allows us to have that control. And then we focus on that control, and that is really helpful for relieving that anxiety.”
- The five senses exercise: Start by noticing and calling out five things you can see. Then, do the same for four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things that you can smell, and one thing that you taste. Anzaldua says this exercise is a great way to connect to your sensory input and ground your body to the earth.
- The body scan: Start with your toes and work your way up, “scanning” your body mentally and checking in with how each area feels. This is a way to counter dissociation and get back in your body if you’re feeling disconnected or overwhelmed by stressful thoughts.
7Stay in your comfort zone.
As you start transitioning to life post-pandemic, remember that this is, in fact, a transition, and you shouldn’t try to resume every aspect of life all at once. Don’t push yourself further than you feel comfortable, and stay in your “window of tolerance,” a space where someone is able to safely regulate their emotions. “When we go outside of our window because we’re triggered by something, typically we start to have emotion dysregulation, and we leave that window of tolerance,” Anzaldua explains. “And then we end up having panic attacks, irritability, or are unable to control our emotions.”
This means paying attention to your body and your needs. If you’re feeling sensory overload while in the city, recognize that and take steps to get yourself back to a place of comfort.
8Move forward consciously.
Life post-pandemic may not be what any of us wanted or imagined, but we can move forward with hope for what’s ahead. Instead of dwelling on the past or wanting things to simply go back to the way they were, think of the ways the pandemic changed us all for the better. We may now have a better understanding of our surroundings, look out for those around us, and appreciate nurses, healthcare workers, small business owners, and community leaders more than ever before. This isn’t about blind optimism but about shifting the narrative toward appreciation and compassion, and considering the situation an opportunity to make improvements in our lives.
“Use what’s happened as a wakeup call to consciously create the future that we want,” Dr. Manly says. For me, I’m using what I’ve learned throughout the pandemic as a way to adapt a more community-focused approach in everything I do. This means being more conscious about where I’m putting my money, through supporting more small and local businesses and setting up recurring donations to positive community-building organizations.
In big cities, it’s easy to put on blinders to the outside world and take on a self-focused mindset, but we can all work to be more conscious of the many ways we’re connected to others. This way, we can move away from the “every person for themselves” mindset (i.e. the desperate toilet paper hoarding) and do more to share resources, support our communities, and look out for one another.