Re-entry syndrome in a time of pandemic
Lockdown restrictions have eased significantly. Children are going back to school and fitness clubs are reopening. Perhaps instead of feeling overjoyed at starting to get some of your old life back, you are feeling sad or anxious. It’s not surprising that there is a mix of feelings. In part, there is the complexity of having to make daily choices about activities and personally acceptable risk levels, especially when we make choices that others in our circle may not understand. It may also be what psychologists call re-entry syndrome or reverse culture shock.
Reverse culture shock is what happens when you return home after being immersed in a different culture for some time – usually several months or years. We expect to struggle to adjust to a new country or culture and are prepared for the grief that is part of the experience. Often, however, we don’t recognise that it’s just as hard to adapt in reverse.
An example of this would be someone who goes overseas for an extended period. After the initial excitement has worn off, they miss their family and friends, their usual routines, and sometimes even the kinds of foods to which they are accustomed. Over time, they adapt and adjust to their new environment. They may even prefer some aspects of the new experience. When the time comes to return home, there may be an unexpected period of grief as they now have to mourn what they have come to love about their adopted culture and reintegrate back home.
We have spent six months living in a different reality. In March we went into hard lockdown for five weeks. Our lives changed dramatically overnight. We have had to live in a new way of doing things – not going to work or school or out to meet friends. Our days developed into new rhythms and new methods of connecting even as we grieved the loss of our former way of living.
As cases have declined and we ease back to a relative “normal” some of us may feel sad and anxious. We are rightly wary. A second wave of the virus could happen at any time. We live with a lack of certainty and predictability. But there is also the reverse culture shock of having become used to things being a certain way and realising that we have to adjust again. We may have got used to having our children at home and now must grieve and adapt as schools re-open. Some who have found a rhythm working from home may not want to go into an office environment every day. Initially, we may find it unexpectedly taxing to connect with friends as we have lived very different experiences during the lockdown.
Change takes a great deal of mental and emotional energy. If you are anxious or sad about the lockdown restrictions lifting, know that it is normal. Psychologists have found that the period of reintegration can be as taxing as the initial culture shock of the lockdown. Our experiences of the last six months have changed us. We need to be kind to ourselves and each other as we find the pathway forward.