Anxious as we transition out of the pandemic? That's common and can be treated, experts say

If you are tense or anxious about reentering today's so-called "normal," experts say that's understandable.

(CNN)America is in celebratory mode. States are dropping Covid-19 restrictions, plane travel is breaking records, and many Americans are gearing up to celebrate summer as if the last year plus of pandemic madness never happened.

"Many people are experiencing a relief. They've been vaccinated and are able to gather again with others," said psychologist Kristen Carpenter, who is director of Women's Behavioral Health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
    Yet the pandemic isn't truly over. The highly contagious Delta variant of Covid-19 is sweeping through unvaccinated communities, and there is worry that even the vaccinated among us are at risk.
      "It's not like somebody put a period on the sentence, and we're done with this pandemic. We really don't know what's ahead," said stress management expert Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, an editor for the magazine Contentment, produced by the American Institute of Stress.
      That's not all. Violent crime is up, historic heat waves are devastating areas of the country not prepared to cope, and mental health practitioners can't keep up with the demand for services.
      "I think for many people this 'return to normal' feels awfully abrupt and jarring," Carpenter said, adding that the pandemic has been an incredibly difficult period, "with lots of opportunity for confusion, for disagreement, and for discord."
      She continued, "It's a real mixed bag. While many will experience much of this reopening as positive, there is a subset of people that will really struggle with how to move out of this very challenging time."

      Blame the brain

      If you are tense or anxious about reentering today's so-called "normal," experts say that's understandable. Blame it on your brain -- especially your frontal lobe, where you do your higher-level thinking.
      "We've just expended enormous energy navigating this whole pandemic -- constantly with loved ones, hypervigilant going to the store -- and that takes extra brainpower," Ackrill said.
      "When your frontal lobe is tired from doing emotional regulation on steroids for a year and a half, you're not as good at it," she added. "You could even be at your breaking point."
      If, however, you find yourself giddy with relief and ready to act as if there was no pandemic to worry about, that too makes neurological sense, said Dr. Bruce Wexler, a senior research scientist in psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine.
      "Humans are the only animals that shape the environment that shapes our brains and we function and feel better when there's a fit between the two," said Wexler, who has studied brain plasticity for more than 35 years.
      "Every day we strive to renew ourselves by reconnecting with the familiar faces and places that shaped us and are inside of us. That's one of the reasons people were so agitated about wanting to go back to their favorite bars and hangouts," Wexler added.
      When he realized that motivation, Wexler said, "I had more sympathy for the people who were complaining 'Open up, open up!' I could understand their urgency."

      It's time for compassion

      Safely getting back to normal, in whatever shape that currently looks like, will require being fully vaccinated and adhering to the latest social distancing requirements of local communities and businesses, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
      Coping with anxiety, tension or worry about risky pandemic behaviors -- both our own and those of other people -- will take a combination of self-care and compassion, experts say.
      "We all have to give ourselves a little grace," Carpenter said. "It's really important that we try not to judge ourselves for our emotional response to this change. This is objectively really stressful and to have some combination of relief, happiness, fear, or maybe even some anger and frustration is normal."
      It's just as important to show compassion to those around us who are navigating their own reactions to change, Ackrill said. She tells a story of being on a walk (while wearing a mask) when a woman came close to her and began yelling "I'm not wearing a mask and I'm never wearing a mask!"
      "I ignored her. I had longer legs and walked faster. She charged after me again, yelling at me and then coughed in my direction, on purpose," Ackrill continued.
      "And it just floored me because I thought, this is probably a woman whose friends and relatives would be appalled by her behavior, and it was her fear coming out -- fear of feeling out of control and wanting so badly to control things."
      By seeing the woman's behavior through compassionate eyes, Ackrill was able to calm her own reaction and reduce her stress.
      "Self-compassion and giving compassion don't make us more vulnerable, they make us stronger," she said. "So when you're feeling heightened emotions such as anxiety, or even anger about someone's risky behavior, calm yourself, and have some compassion for yourself and that other person."

      Taking stock of your emotions

      Like all things, this pandemic too shall pass, but how well we weather it will be based on our actions, experts say.
      "Recognizing and taking stock of our emotions, addressing those and then giving ourselves a little grace are essential to moving forward productively in ways that protect and enhance our well-being," Carpenter said.
      Do a wellness check-in: Ask yourself "Am I protecting my sleep? Am I eating right? Am I getting some kind of physical activity into each and every week?"
      "It's back to basic self-care," Carpenter said. "Many of us have developed great habits with our time at home, but many of us evolved into bad habits. It's time for a check-in."
      Do the same for your emotions: "We have to be more mindful, give ourselves time and space to assess how we're doing psychologically and emotionally," Carpenter said. "It's important to set aside time to disconnect, unplug from all the various things we are now plugged into and ask: 'How am I feeling?'"
      She advises her patients to begin tracking their activities, mood and energy over the course of each day, including weekends, for at least two weeks.
      "Is there a rhythm to the way I feel, to my stress, to my energy level, to my mood? Lots of us don't notice we are struggling until we're kind of halfway or maybe three-quarters of the way there," she said. "Once you start to notice what that rhythm is you can start to implement change for the better."
      Recharge your energy: The next step is to plug in activities that you find rewarding and give you "a greater sense of well-being," Carpenter advised. "Activities that give a sense of mastery or accomplishment are natural mood boosters, reduce stress and help ultimately enhance well-being."
      For some that might be social contact, for others it might be time spent alone, doing hobbies, reading or listening to music. And don't forget laughing at silly jokes or upbeat movies, Carpenter said.
      "Humor is really important, you know, so engaging with media that does lift the spirits can help," she said. "And of course physical activity is a natural sort of mood enhancer, such as walking in nature."