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The Challenges of Getting Back to ‘Normal’

We recently spoke with Elissa Berlinger, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and MS counselor and educator to reflect on the challenges of the past fifteen months, and to talk about navigating this new phase of the pandemic. With increasing vaccination rates and things opening up, there is hopeful progress and light at the end of the tunnel, but navigating continued uncertainty is still challenging. Here, Elissa discusses strategies for taking care of your well-being, including communication and boundary-setting tools.

InforMS: As a mental health professional, could you reflect on the challenges people have faced over the last year?

Elissa Berlinger: The challenges have been multi-faceted due to the many unknowns and uncertainties we’ve all had to navigate in various ways. Those uncertainties surfaced in different ways for everyone. Some individuals have felt cooped up or stuck and many have felt fearful for their health and safety. Many have also experienced defiance, frustration, anger and confusion. Many have struggled with not feeling connected and missing physical interactions, especially those that live by themselves or in difficult living situations.

People have been coping with loss and grief, anxiety, health and safety, isolation, job loss or changes, increased and ever-expanding roles of parenting, remote learning for children, financial concerns. For people living with MS, these difficulties are experienced alongside the already daunting realities in managing the complex challenges of living with a chronic disease.

InforMS: Given the complexity and spectrum of individual experiences, how do you help people navigate these challenges?

Elissa: One way to think of how we have responded to the pandemic is that we are all grieving in different ways. Grief is a process that isn’t linear and can come in waves. Grief can often be thought of not only as loss, but also as change and uncertainty. Grief brings up numerous uncomfortable feelings like fear, loneliness, resentment, and fatigue. There are also different types of grief that relate to loss of control, loss of safety, and uncertainty about the future. In fact, living through the pandemic has many parallels to living with a chronic condition like MS.

There is no timeline on when things will completely “return to normal.” The grief process may feel different now and show up in different ways than at the beginning of the pandemic.

InforMS: We are now moving through a phase of the pandemic that feels more hopeful. People are getting vaccinated, things are beginning to open up, and health and safety guidelines are changing. At the same time, there are still uncertainties and people are managing transitions in different ways. Can you talk about that?

Elissa: It’s important to recognize that each individual’s experience is unique. Some people can’t wait to get back to socializing and back to how things used to be as much as possible. And some people feel heightened anxiety about jumping back into social situations. And, of course, there’s a whole spectrum of individual responses and experiences in the middle of those two examples.

For those who are experiencing anxiety, some strategies that may be helpful are: Give yourself permission to go slow and be compassionate with yourself. Give yourself time and space to make small changes and go at your own pace. Doing things all at once could be overwhelming. Also, if you are in a higher risk population, it’s particularly important to work with your health care provider on your individual risk assessment and precautions to continue taking for your health and safety.

Elissa Berlinger, LCSW

Something that’s unfamiliar can be scary simply due to the fact that it’s unfamiliar. Holding ourselves back isn’t necessarily helpful either. Sometimes, it’s important to push ourselves to know our limit. It’s similar to how I talk with clients about exercise. We often don’t know how hard we can push ourselves until we try. Navigating this phase of the pandemic and individuals finding their own balance between caution, level of risk acceptance, and reintegration comfort level will involve some degree of trial and error. Fundamentally, it’s important for all of us to understand the spectrum of individual experiences throughout this time and to have both self-compassion and compassion for others who have struggled and suffered.

InforMS: Could you please discuss the importance of communication and boundary setting?

Elissa: It’s important to clearly communicate with your friends and family and to set boundaries. For example, even though mask mandates have been lifted, you may not be comfortable taking your mask off yet because you are immunocompromised or have young children. And that’s okay. It’s important to make sure you communicate clearly with friends, family, and co-workers so that you can have a shared understanding of your concerns and comfort level and it’s not a guessing game for everyone. Others will have different comfort levels and it’s important to be respectful of one another’s boundaries.

With boundary-setting, it’s important to remember that these are your own individual decisions and you’re not responsible for other people’s reactions to your decisions. Also, when implementing boundaries, it’s key to recognize that you can’t control other people’s actions or decisions; the only thing you can truly control is yourself.

InforMS: What are your observations about some of the most helpful potential lessons learned or silver linings of what we’ve experienced as individuals over this past year?

Elissa: Many things that we never imagined or didn’t think were possible, ended up working. People were able to adapt to new ways of doing things. We’ve learned that it’s possible to change and adapt. It certainly takes more energy and it’s challenging because it’s unfamiliar. But then, relatively quickly, it becomes normal. We have all built resiliency. We did our best to cope, adapt, and accept. We found resilience because we were faced with a new reality and we wanted to survive.

I think another lesson learned is that it can be powerful to lean into uncertainty. Worrying can become a habit. There’s much that we don’t have control over. Worrying can feel like a mechanism of control. When you’re worrying, it can feel you’re doing something to take control of an uncomfortable feeling. Instead, we can work to acknowledge that uncomfortable feeling and learn to ride the waves of fear, sadness, anxiety that the feeling might bring and know that it will pass.

Moving forward, we have an opportunity to ask ourselves: “What from this time was helpful to me? How can I translate that into the new normal?” Maybe I can keep being mindful about slowing down and not always being on the go.

Sometimes when we are constantly on the go, it’s a mechanism to avoid uncomfortable things. Maybe we have learned that we can sit with things that are uncomfortable and still be okay.

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