Getting Back to ‘Normal’ May Not Be So Easy. Crisis Experts Can Help.

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After 80 days of lockdown, my husband and I yearned for company. Since New York City is slowly easing restrictions, we decided to ask friends for a socially distanced lunch. I planned the social experiment with the precision I do when reporting in war zones.

We would invite only two people, for just two hours. We would choose only those we knew had been strict quarantineers and had gotten coronavirus tests. We would insist on face covers and a checklist of taboos that included touching your dinnerware but nothing else. We’d convene in the garden out back, with no lingering inside.

After tallying these rigid ground rules, we actually found a couple willing to endure the constraints. I looked forward to a relaxing reunion.

Instead I was on guard the whole time. It’s hard to police friends, and folks get sloppy when they’re happy to see each other. Everyone violated the six-foot decree. Masks slipped down. Someone touched the salad bowl without gloves. They both asked to use the bathroom.

Our encounter brought home to me how stressful this transition period, when we’re not fully taking refuge but still in danger of exposure, will be. The lockdown cave had its lonely challenges, but we were safe inside. In the cocoon, we did not go in and out of high alert in an ambiguous situation.

Now, as we venture outside with a mix of masked and unmasked faces, emerging feels like a Wild West of germs. We’re making up rules as we go along. After finally getting used to confinement, I find myself on edge figuring out how to behave with less restraints.

The assessment process of “what risks do I take?” reminds me of what I’ve done in 30 years of covering conflicts in war zones around the globe and teaching seminars for journalists to protect themselves. Except now we’re dodging pedestrians instead of land mines. I find myself constantly assessing how to avoid those cigar smokers on the corner, how to get to the deli when it’s empty, whether I can trust my own closest friends to wipe the bathroom faucets after use.

Having adjusted to lockdown, we’re stretching the emotional rubber band by loosening limitations. We don’t have a clear picture of how the new-new normal will play out. We might have to withdraw again with a new viral surge.

Humans can take only so much change.

“We are adaptable, but we’re also a little rigid,” says Gil Reyes, a clinician from Santa Barbara, Calif., who specializes in the psychology of violent and destructive events. “You want things to be the way they were before. Anything that takes us out of the known way to do things is a stressor.”

Further strain comes from the sheer number of calculations one must make when venturing out. We have so many choices at every moment of potential exposure.

“It’s exhausting,” agrees Elana Newman, an expert on psychological trauma who teaches at the University of Tulsa. “In the absence of any certainty, every person has to make a cost-benefit about every activity they engage in. Is this a high-risk or a low-risk action? Is it worth it to me?”

Anxiety about this gamble is particularly severe for those who are already hard hit by grief and financial loss, or do essential work that requires exposure, says Elissa Epel, vice chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco

“Feeling safe is key to recovery from trauma and avoiding long-term mental health consequences like PTSD,” she says. That’s hard to achieve when people lack physical safety as well as the security that they are bonded with others around them who are taking the same precautions.

But there are ways to navigate this jarring new situation. Here’s the advice that these experts gave, corroborated by my years of crisis reporting and by living through this pandemic.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 1, 2020

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • How can I help?

      Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.

Accept. In order to keep the blood pressure down, try to embrace a Zen acceptance that life is not risk-free, says Dr. Epel. Breathe deeply. You can’t control reckless behavior by others but you can control your responses. “Exercise compassion toward their different worldview,” she says. “Maybe they’re giving haircuts too early because of financial need. Maybe they truly believe the virus is a hoax.” Fuming that they aren’t complying with safety regulations will only make you feel worse.

Seek support. Surround yourself with people who make you feel supported and positive. “Social connection is the biggest factor shoring up emotional resilience,” says Jack Saul, a psychologist and leading expert on collective trauma and healing. “Recovery comes when people connect with other people and talk about what they’ve been through and feel supported.”

Take it slow. Move outward slowly. “Don’t jump into the hustle and bustle all at once,” says Dr. Reyes. Perhaps start with a socially distanced walk. Graduate to a backyard gathering with a couple of people you trust. Make clear that safety rules are for their protection as well as yours. And continue with the hand-washing, distancing and face coverings. That much you can control.

Be clear. You have a right to set conditions in your house. Don’t feel shy reminding visitors, politely, if they’ve lapsed. It’s your home.

Practice makes perfect. This new modus operandi will be taxing at first, but after some practice it will begin to feel automatic. I find that when I first get to a dangerous country, I’m self-regulating at 100 percent. After a while I go into automatic pilot and it becomes rote to know what to look for and how to react. I identify patterns: This street is particularly problematic, that person is too reckless. We simply need time to find our footing.

Assess and debrief. Think of the first encounters as dress rehearsals. After the experimental lunch, I sat down and analyzed what worked and what didn’t. I came up with a plan. Next time I’ll hand out gloves and disposable spoons at the door. I’ll place disinfectant with a sign in the bathroom. I’ll chalk the table with six-foot marks.

And I’ll feel more at ease being prepared.

Judith Matloff teaches crisis reporting at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She just published a manual for hazards, “How to Drag a Body and Other Safety Tips You Hope to Never Need.