Navigate the new normal with grace and grit.
In Florida, most schools have reopened for in-person instruction, restaurants and bars serve customers, and sporting events carry on. Soon enough, the holidays will arrive with their own set of social expectations.
And yet, the pandemic continues.
Reopening society is a dicey dance, moving one step forward, two steps back, as COVID-19 cases rise and vaccines remain out of reach. The full impact of pandemic fatigue is upon us. Must we sacrifice safety to maintain our sanity and social connections?
The COVID-19 conundrum
“We don’t know how to act in a pandemic. We’re learning as we go. It’s difficult to digest all the information and ever-changing (public health) guidelines. Our work, school, and personal lives overlap, yet we’re expected to multitask and keep it together. We need to face and reconcile these challenges to protect our mental and physical health,” says Dr. Vanessa L. Padilla, a psychiatrist with the University of Miami Health System.
Unfortunately, the very thing that strengthens emotional health – the human connection – is the same thing that could kill us – depending on our risk factors.
People cope differently in a crisis
People react very differently to the coronavirus. Understanding the possible reasons behind those reactions may help us be more empathetic. “Some people are better at identifying their emotions and values, communicating expectations, and making decisions to protect themselves and others. Based on different values, understanding, and expectations, other people may struggle to set boundaries or follow public health advisories.”
Dr. Padilla says that people who feel more comfortable when they’re in control of a situation tend to mask up, sanitize, and social distance. “They tell themselves, ‘I will get through this.’” Others are fearful but don’t acknowledge their feelings. Like those who use denial as a coping tool, nervous individuals may minimize the danger or ignore public health guidelines. Others go to the opposite “isolate and ruminate” extreme. When this isolation coincides with an existing mental illness, these people need additional support. If empathetic family and friends cannot help, professional counseling – even through a Zoom call or mental health app – is a wise choice. “At a therapeutic level, my goal is helping people make healthy choices and monitor their feelings to see how it affects their interpersonal relationships,” Dr. Padilla says.
Let’s talk about risk
Before we discuss staying safe and sane, let’s tackle risk. “When we’re tired, frustrated, and we want our ‘normal’ back, we are more prone to let our guard down. Risk is just a risk until it happens to you. Young people especially need to remember this,” says Dr. Padilla.
When evaluating risk – a friend wants to meet at a restaurant or invites you to a party – Dr. Padilla suggests asking yourself, “If I catch the virus, how will it change my daily life?” Instead of inciting fear, this exercise makes you stop and weigh the risks versus benefits before responding.
Get back to the basics
Though she specializes in treating issues affecting the mind, Dr. Padilla says that everything depends on the body. “In the absence of physical self-care, emotional self-care is not enough. We must be physically healthy to protect our mental health.”
If the pandemic forced you to juggle a job, homeschooling, and running a household, get back to basics. “We only have 24 hours in a day. Reprioritize those hours to meet your basic needs for sleep, food, exercise, etcetera.”
Here are Dr. Padilla’s suggestions for handling some of the most common and confounding social situations created by the pandemic.
To mask or not to mask.
People who wear masks can become frustrated when others don’t. “With all the changes and societal pressures, some individuals feel frustrated when their needs aren’t met or understood. It’s important to acknowledge and not avoid our feelings. Otherwise, we build up resentment, anger, anxiety, guilt, or sadness.”
Masking should not devolve into a competition of personal beliefs or confrontations, she says. She follows the advice of public health experts. “We need to focus on science and prevention. To minimize virus transmission and exposure, the recommendations are clear: wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands.”
One is the loneliest number.
Dr. Padilla acknowledges isolation’s negative impact on mental well-being. Netflix parties and Zoom happy hours work for a while, but if you crave interaction beyond your dog, cat, immediate family, or yourself, consider safe in-person options. Small group gatherings outside, with people you trust and who share your values, boost your sense of connection, and reduce stress while maintaining safety. With proper planning and communication, you can social distance, mask, and visit at the same time. Whether you go alone or with a friend, exercising in nature is another way to boost your mood.
Consider Dr. Padilla’s straightforward approach to a recent social interaction. “I called a friend and said, ‘I want to take my dog to a dog beach, Sunday, from 5-7 p.m. I will drive myself, wear a mask, and bring my own water. Would you feel comfortable meeting me there?’” She set the rules, and her friend happily accepted the invitation. When meeting a friend for coffee, Dr. Padilla chose an uncrowded coffee shop with outdoor seating. The pandemic often requires a risk versus benefit decisions. Dr. Padilla’s friend works in an emergency room but wears full protective gear at work.
Watch your language.
As the dog beach example shows, communication is the key. This is especially important when you live with others. If your family’s communication skills aren’t solid, Dr. Padilla suggests working with an “external mediator or therapist”. Each family member’s health habits may differ, depending on their age, expectations, and needs. Maybe your teenager craves social interaction, but grandma’s health requires caution. (The incubation period for COVID-19 is typically two to 14 days, although in some cases it may be longer.) Dr. Padilla recommends a compromise. “You could respectfully say, ‘If you want to attend that gathering, you must wear a mask and continue to inside the house.’”
The same rules apply if your spouse goes out for lunch with co-workers, with an interesting caveat, “Tell your spouse, ‘We will sleep in separate rooms and wear a mask inside the house.’”
Situation: An out-of-town friend wants to visit for the weekend.
But, you have risk factors. And your friend works in a busy office and dines out socially.
Remember, “I” statements allow you to speak on your own behalf while navigating tricky social situations.
“If you receive somebody in your home, you’re entitled to set the rules. Say, ‘I’d love to see you, but COVID cases are rising in my area. Let’s postpone our visit and check in with each other next month.’ Make it about you, not their behavior. That removes any judgement,” Dr. Padilla says.
Walk the walk.
Transparent talk lets others know where you stand – as long as your behavior aligns with your words. “We cannot make false promises or break the boundaries we agreed upon. If you wear a mask, wear it appropriately and at all times. Be a role model for others. Be straightforward and empathetic when educating others about your safety measures,” Dr. Padilla says. Whatever you do, don’t try to reason with or “lecture” people on scientific facts. “Their responses may emerge from fear or feeling out of control, which clouds their thinking, despite the facts.” If you’re exhausted from tiptoeing the tightrope between personal safety and etiquette, “Take a break and focus on self-care.”
As challenging as it is, “we need to feel comfortable talking about the uncomfortable truth,” she says. Sometimes, agreeing to disagree with others who don’t share our opinions is the best way to care for ourselves.
When her clients complain of pandemic fatigue, Dr. Padilla reminds them, “We do the best we can with what we have. We are already resilient. We have made it to November! We just need to boost our skills.”
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.
"It's about prioritizing your needs and your behaviors to protect your well-being," says Vanessa Padilla, M.D. Learn more.