Flat-lay with letter board that says "Covid-19 Re-entry Overwhelm"

COVID-19 Re-Entry Overwhelm: Making Sense of Our Experiences

As I’m writing this, we are currently in Stage 2 of the provincial government’s plan for reopening Ontario during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most retail stores and health professions are back to in-person service options. Childcare centres are reopening, restaurants are offering patio seating, and hair salons are welcoming clients. After months of self-isolation, we are emerging from our homes and physically re-entering our communities. 

closed store front with murals over door and windows
Photo by Nick Bolton

A few weeks ago we were eagerly anticipating this moment. We dreamed about returning to our favourite stores and restaurants. I definitely made some fan art for my hair stylist. 

But now that we’re here, how is it going? What has re-entry been like for you and your family? 

If your experience has been anything like mine, it might not be going how you expected. Actually, I’ve been finding the re-entry process quite challenging. 

I’ve noticed what I’m calling “re-entry overwhelm.” I’ve found this concept to be helpful as I make sense of my experiences, and I’m hoping that it might help you and your family too if you’re struggling. 

woman holding hands up in "stop" motion in front of face
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Re-entry overwhelm: What’s going on? 

I was so looking forward to my first trip back to the dollar store. It’s a place where I find inspiration, art supplies, and ideas. My favourite part is wandering aimlessly up and down the craft aisle. 

The day finally came when I could venture out. I put on my reusable cloth mask, grabbed my hand sanitizer, and drove to the store. I waited in line outside the store, keeping 6 feet between myself and the person in front of me. 

When it was my turn to enter the store, a masked employee pressed the button so the door would open automatically. After I walked through the door, the employee sanitized the door handles even though I hadn’t touched them. There were arrows on the floor guiding me in one direction down the aisles. Loudspeaker announcements instructed me to not place any personal items on the shelves, to only touch products I was planning to purchase, and to complete my shopping quickly so that those waiting outside could have a turn. 

arrow and "stand here" markings on floor for physical distancing
Photo by Aleks Marinkovic

When I was ready to check out, markers on the floor showed me where to stand as I waited in line. The cashier wore a mask and face shield, and stood behind a plexiglass barrier. I paid with “tap” and used a disposable shopping bag. The same employee opened the door for me on my way out and then disinfected the door again. 

Aerial photo of feet in sandals by a physical distancing marker on the floor

Phew! I got back in my car, sanitized my hands, and removed my mask. I felt absolutely exhausted. I also wanted to cry. I was completely overwhelmed, but I didn’t know why. I had more errands to complete, and over the course of the afternoon these feelings only amplified. 

Have you noticed similar feelings as you return to stores and businesses in your community? What about your kiddos – how have they been responding?

Here are a few behaviours I’ve noticed that might be signs of re-entry overwhelm… 

Signs of re-entry overwhelm:

  1. Whining, weepiness, sadness (for no apparent reason)
  2. Clingy behaviour (your typically independent kiddo now wants to stay glued to you)
  3. Displaced anger or frustration (losing their cool with the toy blocks after coming home from the grocery store)
  4. All feelings are bigger than usual (happiness  and disappointment)
  5. Meltdowns and tantrums during or after anticipated events (eg. when seeing a friend again for the first time, or going out for ice cream)
  6. Heightened anxiety about old and new things (new worries eg. about getting sick, as well as old worries coming back, even if they don’t contextually make sense – eg. anxiety about missing the bus even though school is done for the year) 
  7. Regression (kids might ask for help with things they could previously do on their own, like tying their shoes or putting their toys away) 
  8. More tired than usual (less energy, getting tired more easily)
  9. Bad dreams and sleep disruptions (nightmares might include new content, or they might be old bad dreams that are suddenly back again) 
child resting head in hands at table
Photo by Annie Spratt

Why is this happening???

Going to the dollar store and running errands is something that I have done literally hundreds of times. So why did I have that reaction?? There are actually lots of reasons. 

Sensory overload! First of all, going anywhere outside of our homes and being around strangers is a HUGE contrast to self-isolation. Even for those of us without sensory sensitivities, it’s OVER-STIMULATION! To go from being in the same environment every day for several months, to then being in a new environment of any kind, is a lot to process. 

Black man wearing face mask in aisle of grocery store
Photo by Frankie Cordoba

Everything is the same but different. Even though I’ve been to the dollar store a hundred times, my experience this time was completely different. The conflict between what I was expecting and what the reality ended up being was a bit disconcerting. The fact that many things were the same, but it all felt so different, was confusing! My brain had to work really hard to process what was going on and to help me adjust to the new environment. 

Person sitting at top of stairs below a sign that says "Stay Safe & Follwo Guidelines Do Your Part To Reduce the Spread of COVID-19"
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

New rules and expectations. Even though most businesses are following similar protocols and safety measures, each business is implementing this in their own way. This means that the “rules” at each store are a little bit different. We are required to quickly learn the rules, and the stakes for not following the rules are extremely high. With safety as the number one priority, employees and business owners are understandably adamant that rules are followed. Many stores have employees or even uniformed security guards at the door, making sure that all entering customers are wearing a mask and sanitizing their hands. This can be reassuring, but it might also feel intimidating, frightening or overwhelming.

There are visual cues all around that remind us of an invisible threat. Face masks, place markers, directional arrows, Plexiglas barriers, signs about symptoms, hand sanitizer – these are all visual cues reminding us of the virus. When we are out in public, it’s impossible to avoid these reminders. This is a good thing, because we need to be thinking about the virus so that we can make smart and safe decisions to help keep our communities safe. But these constant reminders really bring focus to the reality and presence of the virus. Even though we all know what’s going on and have felt tremendous impact on our daily lives, when we are at home we probably don’t have as many constant reminders of the virus. This is especially true for kids. They know that they aren’t going to school or hanging out with their friends, but they’re probably not seeing signs, PPE, or physical barriers when they’re at home. Facing the reality of an invisible threat all around us can feel overwhelming, to say the least. 

sign on crosswalk instructing pedestrians not to touch button
Photo by Erik McLean

Screening for symptoms can amplify anxiety. Many businesses are required to screen anyone entering the premises for physical symptoms of COVID-19. Being asked about physical symptoms can feel intrusive and can be anxiety-provoking. There’s a huge connection between anxiety and physical symptoms. Many of us who struggle with anxiety worry about getting physical symptoms, and then our worry about it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between anxiety’s effects on the body, and actual symptoms of physical illness. Some people struggle with anxiety specifically connected to their health. Constantly being asked if you are feeling sick can be like opening the door and inviting that anxiety to come on in. Anxiety can also build like a snowball. It starts with one little thing, but as it rolls along it absorbs new material. “You weren’t worried about getting sick before? That seems like an easy addition. Let’s add that to the list!”  

Poster showing symptoms of COVID-19
Image created by Holly Wells for the United Nations.

We pick up on each other’s collective stress and anxiety. The reality is that as we navigate this global pandemic, we are living through a collective trauma. It will impact each of us differently, but as a general rule, every single one of us is living in a state of heightened stress. At the level of our nervous systems, we are on high alert and responding to a threat. Even if we don’t say anything to the person walking by, our nervous system picks up on their nervous system’s dysregulation. This is not a conscious thing that happens, but it has a huge impact on our physical bodies, and in turn, our ability to regulate our emotions. 

People walking down street wearing face masks
Photo by Macau Photo Agency

Our happy places might feel different. As funny as it might sound, the dollar store craft aisle was a happy place for me. It’s somewhere I would go to clear my head or to find my way forward with a project. It rocked me to go back and have such a different experience. My happy place felt different, at a time when I really needed it. 

Bottom line: there’s a LOT going on as we re-enter our communities. All of these things take energy, effort, and emotion. Even if we aren’t aware that all this is happening in the background or on an unconscious level, it still has an impact.

As all of these things are happening for us adults, they are also happening for our kids. And kids have fewer resources, less experience, and a lower capacity to deal with it! So, in my mind, re-entry overwhelm makes total sense. 

Managing Re-entry Overwhelm

Here are a few strategies that have been helpful for me: 

  1. Name and acknowledge what’s happening. If you’ve read this far, you’ve already done it. There’s a lot going on right now. It’s not just “back to how things were” – there are so many factors contributing to our current experience. Maybe there are others for you that I haven’t listed. What are you noticing? What feels hard? What else is different? What didn’t match your expectations? 
  2. Mindset shift. Instead of “back to normal,” I invite you to come up with a different name for this time period. For me, I’m calling it “Summer 2020 Adjustment.” If we can think about this time as something new we are collectively learning through, we can release ourselves (and our kids) from the expectation that we should know what to do and how to feel, or be able to behave or interact in the ways we did before. This is NEW! It takes learning and growing and getting used to.
  3. So much grace and kindness. Let’s offer empathy for ourselves and our kiddos for all that we’ve experienced. When we take a step back and acknowledge what’s happening, it makes sense that it all feels hard sometimes. Of course our kiddos want more hugs. Of course they ask for help with their shoe laces. Their world has changed multiple times in the past few months. So has ours. Let’s cut each other some slack. 
  4. Less talking, more physical regulation. I believe that talking about and making sense of what’s happening is really important. But in the moments of overwhelm, it’s not the most helpful. Instead, we need to physically regulate our nervous system. Lisa Dion, the founder of Synergetic Play Therapy, generously shared this amazing list of simple self-regulation strategies. Some of my favourites include drinking a glass of cold water, singing, and taking fast walks around my neighbourhood. 
  5. Make a list of what hasn’t changed (when you and your kiddo are both feeling calm and regulated). This helps us to orient ourselves to what’s known and familiar, which increases our felt sense of safety. When we feel safe, our nervous system can relax and we have a higher capacity to adjust to any changes. 
  6. Take breaks. Knowing what you know now about how it feels to be out in the world (and why this might be happening), it may be helpful to plan less in your day. Pre-pandemic, I would do 5 errands at a time. Now I do a maximum of 3. That’s all I can handle right now, and that’s okay. I take mask-free breaks in my car in between, and a tv break when I get home again. Kids need this too. They can handle less than they did before, and they need more time to unwind and recharge afterwards. Planning this into your schedule may help you to avoid conflicts with your kiddos. 
Woman holding child
Photo by Bethany Beck

This is all new and I’m right here learning through it too. What’s working for you as you re-enter your community? 

If you or your child would like some individualized support as you navigate all the re-entry feels, I’m available for in-person or online art therapy sessions and I’m currently accepting new clients. Send me an email or call the office to get started. 

Written by Rubi Garyfalakis, DTATI, RP, RCAT