A Washington Post article talked about a new phenomenon some are starting to experience, as the end of COVID flashes on our collective horizon. It’s like FOMO (“fear of missing out”), for the post-pandemic world: FONO. FONO refers to the “fear of normal,” an unexpected reaction that many of us face, as lockdown and social distancing measures loosen and wind down.

Re-entering society and regaining a sense of normalcy has been on our minds for over a year. Now that we’re almost there, we may wonder how to return to normal, and whether we’ll even be ready to return to old conventions. The FONO is very, very real.

What does FONO look like?

As we re-enter society after a year of societal-scale catastrophe, things are bound to feel off. Whether stilted and unreal, or unfamiliar and threatening, reality may look very different going forward. That leaves many of us wondering how we’ll adapt.

The pandemic was and is a collective global trauma; normal life can feel totally wrong after trauma revises one’s reality. You can’t act as if you haven’t been through what you have; but how can you live “normally” after what you’ve been through?

Keeping in mind that we’re all re-entering to different degrees and under different circumstances, you may be bracing for social events, face-to-face appointments, going to work or school in person, and more. No matter where you stand in the re-entry pecking order, FONO will have you asking the same questions: 

  • What behaviors and habits may really feel harder upon re-entering public society? 
  • How do we navigate and eventually overcome these things? 
  • What will stay the same, and what will change? What will the post-pandemic world look like?

You may have lost the habits that kept you functional in the pre-pandemic world. Or perhaps you worry you won’t be able to stay disciplined in an office environment. Maybe you got in a routine that works for you at home, and worry about the impact of losing that routine.

Who’s subject to FONO?

First, it’s important to remember that not everyone is re-entering public society and that some are able to do so more than others.

FONO looks different depending on one’s re-entry plans, be we can all experience it. Some are vaccinated and ready to roll back into normal routines. But other vaccinated individuals enjoyed the at-home pandemic life. Some folks are choosing to return to in-person work, relying on herd immunity prior to their own vaccination. And some are required by work or other circumstances to go back to normal, even though there’s still very real risk involved. Anxieties and apprehensions can arise in any re-entry situation.

The point: the next few months will involve changes for all of us, though not all those changes will involve feelings of relief! We can’t claim to know how others feel about “normal” just from their vaccination status or choice to return to work.

Just like with FOMO, connection and support help dissolve FONO. Please continue to check on the people in your life who aren’t able to re-enter at all, aren’t able to re-enter to the extent that you are, or those who are doing so at a high risk. 

FONO: causes and solutions

This time period for our society feels uncertain, and in a lot of ways, it really is. See if you relate to these common anxieties surrounding the coming end of the coronavirus pandemic; and check for tips on how to navigate the discomfort. 

1. Speaking may feel less natural, especially in groups.

Socializing face-to-face may feel a lot tougher now regardless of what environment it’s happening in. Here are two tips:

Remember that you’re not the only one.

Depending on your area and circumstances, most of the people you’ll encounter are in the same boat. It can be beneficial to remember that you’re not alone and that many of the people you’ll be around (whether they show it or not) feel just as awkward. That knowledge helps you pay less attention to your own stumbles, and gives you the confidence to stumble less. If applicable, consider having a couple of ice-breaker questions in mind. That way, you’ll have a conversation starter if you need it! 

Focus on kindness.

Rather than letting the nerves win, shift your focus to being the kindest person you can be. You don’t need to be the most talkative and engaging person on the planet. Instead, ask people how they’re doing, listen attentively, show interest in what they’re saying, and give compliments.

Click here for a list of compliments that aren’t about appearance, or search the web for compliments that aren’t about physical features for some ideas! This ensures that the praise you give is truly meaningful, unwavering, and safe for the person on the receiving end to hear. 

2. Going back to normal may cause overwhelm.

It goes without saying that re-emerging into a normal life may feel overwhelming, after a year of hypervigilance and intentional isolation. You may be a frontline worker who went out for work, you may be someone who worked from home, you may be somewhere in between, or you may have a different situation entirely — re-entering a post-pandemic society from any of those circumstances has the potential to feel new, strange, or overstimulating.

Here are some ways to navigate feelings of overwhelm and the FONO they can cause:

Maintain your pandemic-era boundaries.

Remember that you can keep the boundaries that you’ve set during lockdown. This isn’t my idea, but it is one of the most solid pieces of advice that I’ve seen floating around (credit to @dieticiananna on Twitter)! If you set boundaries during lockdown about where you’ll go, who you’ll see, the conversation topics you engage in, and so on, you are allowed to continue to preserve those boundaries. Even if you didn’t, boundary-setting is an important practice, and it is not too late to start.

The pandemic is still ongoing, and some activities are safer than others. Take things one step at a time, and if there’s something you don’t want to reintroduce into your life for your own well-being or happiness, consider maintaining that.

Maybe you prefer virtual classes to in-person, or you have found yourself dreading the late nights out drinking that you used to feel pressured to attend. Solutions may involve hanging out with friends alcohol-free during the day, or sticking with online courses when they’re available. In some areas, you won’t be able to control these boundaries; but when you do have a choice, exercise it. 

Examine the source of your overwhelm.

Take some time to analyze your feelings of overwhelm and where they come from. This might mean talking about it, writing about, or simply taking some time to think and introspect.

Is your overwhelm to do with safety concerns? A re-emergence of old mental health struggles such as agoraphobia, an eating disorder, or OCD? Are you taking on too much? These are all things that’ll require a different set of tools and ways of thinking to navigate.

Some of these things call for seeking help or doing some personal work. For instance, if you’re taking on too many obligations, it may be time to create a hierarchy of priorities. What needs to be done today? What can be set aside for a later date? And what schedule will make this manageable?

You can also make an effort to implement extra self-care. Be honest with yourself, and don’t hesitate to reach out, because you don’t deserve to struggle in silence.  

3. You may not want to return to your pre-pandemic “normal.”

You may not have liked your pre-pandemic status quo, but now that you’ve gotten a whole year of respite, that same old status quo can induce real fear. It’s like experiencing the Sunday Scaries, on steroids.

Now’s the time to remember you’ve got the reigns! As the entire world goes through this adjustment process, you can take charge of the adjustments you make.

Explore your options. How can you maintain pandemic-era changes that benefitted you? What did you discover about yourself during isolation, and how can you build a new normal incorporating that knowledge? You may not be able to continue your exact pandemic routine, but with a little creativity, you can avoid your own pre-COVID “normal.”

Enjoyed working at home, but reluctant to return in-person? Start a conversation with your boss about what elements of pandemic working can follow you back to your office. Maybe that means continuing to schedule all meetings so you’re not caught off-guard at your desk.

Felt like masks and sanitizer were good additions to your register or workstation? Maybe management can continue providing those items to prevent the common cold even if COVID becomes less of an issue.

Was dating easier for you due to the pandemic? Some (especially introverts) felt more comfortable building virtual connection before subjecting themselves to the pressure of physically meeting. Vaccines don’t have to be the end of that. You could always continue the habit of extended conversation before meeting in-person on a date.

4. You’re not looking forward to every reconnection. 

In general, connecting with others is a goal, but not every connection is a healthy one. Just as we’ve felt devastated by isolation from loved ones, we’ve also felt relieved not to deal with the negative folks in our lives. These could be family members who give unsolicited opinions, toxic bosses, or unsupportive colleagues, classrooms, or work environments.

Now that “normal” is back on the horizon, the prospect of reconnecting with some parts of your old life can cause major FONO. What can you do?

Stay true to yourself.

If you’ve had less exposure to unsupportive people in the past year, it might’ve created one change for the better. Many people found that lockdown gave them a chance to embrace parts of themselves that they previously held inside; it allowed them to get in touch with authentic feelings and opinions that were dismissed before the pandemic. Within your old work structure, you might not have let yourself think too hard about problems you noticed. There wasn’t any point! But now, things are different.

Going back into society, you now see more clearly how you feel about your old habits and connections. You don’t have to burn bridges, but you also don’t have to cow-tow to negative influences anymore. All you have to do is stay in contact with your authentic self. You might use mantras, thought reframing techniques, and other tools to help yourself stay in a mindset where you’re good and true to yourself — even in the presence of difficult people. 

Optimize your time around supportive people, and limit your time around unsupportive people if possible.

In some cases, you might be able to limit the amount of time you spend around a particular person or a group of people. In other cases, this might not be possible. If you have little control over the negative connection, try to focus on emphasizing and optimizing the time that you spend around people who are supportive (whether that is virtually or face-to-face).

Moving forward despite FONO

Your emotional wellbeing matters. Not just during and after a pandemic, but always. At this point in time, the pandemic is still ongoing. Everyone is going to re-emerge at a different time and in different steps.

If you’re feeling anxious about a particular piece of re-entering society, or if anything else is going on in your life, it’s crucial to use self-compassion and develop coping skills that you can turn to. Here are some reminders:

This is global.

Most of the people you encounter will have similar feelings to you. They may be hesitant, excited, scared, or all of those things at once. Some are predominantly feeling anger. Some are predominantly facing grief. Either way, the past year has been a collective challenge, and there are other people out there experiencing the same thoughts and feelings that you are

Your fear of normal is valid.

It’s true that people have faced different forms and varying levels of grief over the past year or so. That said, here are two old sayings you might find useful: “Your feelings are valid because you feel them,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t should yourself.” There are no circumstances in which suffering is a contest, and it is okay to feel any mix of emotions right now. Talking to someone can help.

You will adapt.

As time moves on, more people will get vaccinated, we will get more answers, and the world will continue to shift and change. Some of the things we’ve implemented in the past year, especially pertaining to accessibility in the workplace and in education, will hopefully stick.

There are areas of life that’ll look more like the pre-pandemic world, and other developments that’ll emerge and feel new entirely. We can’t even predict some of the changes that will occur. But either way, we will adapt. If you think about your own life, you can probably think of a number of ways you’ve changed and a number of difficult circumstances you’ve faced. That is proof you can get through this “return” to a potentially unfamiliar “normal.” 

Continue to check the CDC website for information about the coronavirus and how to navigate re-entry based on your area, vaccine status, and more. Prioritize yourself, your health and the health of those around you, and getting your needs met. Stay safe, maintain connection with those you care about, and remember that there is hope.