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Q & A: How to adjust to the 'new normal' according to a local psychologist

Psychologist and author Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee shares some tips for returning to life after coronavirus.

PORTLAND, Ore. — KGW aired a special series this week called "The New Normal."

The title refers to our communities reopening as more people get their coronavirus vaccinations.

We're getting out there again and we're acknowledging all the feels — whether you're excited about the transition or a little unsure.

KGW's Brenda Braxton talked to local psychologist and author, Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee.

"Dr. Doreen" offered ideas to get you ready to return to work and school, to navigate the losses we've felt both collectively and as individuals, and to cultivate a healthier relationship with technology.

Some of the answers below have been edited for clarity.


BB: How are we doing this far into the pandemic?

Dr. Doreen: We're tired — waking up to this feeling of being exhausted and needing a vacation from the pandemic and being overwhelmed thinking about jumping into entirely new opportunities with the world reopening and folks getting vaccinated. We just figured out lockdown and how to maneuver in the world with restrictions. Now we have the invitation to figure out something new and re-enter life more fully and people are feeling really tired.

BB: Some people are ready to jump in — some people are reticent — and sometimes those diametrically opposed ideas are among people in the same family. How do you work that out?

Dr. Doreen: It's so challenging. I'm hearing from folks that they're dealing with very large, strong emotions and some of these are surprising to us.

We expected that when the vaccine arrived that we would be able to reenter and be nothing but excited. In reality, we're finding it's a lot more complex than that. We have lacked social practice and if you partner that with the fact that social anxiety was on the rise prior to the pandemic this creates kind of this weird, 'Do I have what it takes to re-enter?' kind of a feeling. And when we lack practice in any area we feel reticent to jump right into that situation, so I think that's a big theme.

RELATED: How to fight the 'Fall Scaries' of darker days and rainy skies during COVID

People are also waking up to the fact that there have been some major shifts in their primary support group or their primary community over the course of this year where they haven't been able to be together. Now they're trying to figure out how to navigate. How do they re-enter in relationships that maybe have gone dormant in this time? Or maybe have been hurtful to us in this time. How do we navigate that as new invitations enter the picture? And finally, we're feeling very aware of the way in which we've been hyper-attached to technology. It's provided us with this wonderful crutch that when we go back out into the world in embodied ways we won't have access to and that feels somewhat uncomfortable for many people.

BB: What do you mean by "embodied." Is that just face to face?

Dr. Doreen: I think face to face. I think even the small social interactions of doing things like lingering at the grocery store, or sitting at one of our kid's soccer or baseball games.

We are just not as comfortable anymore with the kind of lighthearted schmoozing that maybe we practiced before and that creates this odd sense of discomfort. I think it's also just really hard right now to trust that we are really in this re-entry mode. You know, what if it just goes back? And so, there's this kind of push and pull I'm hearing from a lot of folks. We've been so disrupted in terms of what we can trust as normalcy or what we can expect. We've also partnered that with really large feelings of being out of control. It wasn't really up to us how we navigated our daily lives. We needed to do certain, very extreme things in order to protect our community and so that creates a kind of off kilter sense of self and feeling of security interacting with others in the world.

FULL CONVERSATION: Sunrise Extra: Navigating a new normal with Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee


BB: We've lost thousands of lives in the Northwest and they're more than statistics when it's your mom, dad, sister, brother, son, daughter or friend.

What are the challenges for folks who've been personally affected by the virus?

Dr. Doreen: That group is going to have some really bumpy days, in particular.

They're facing the most significant losses in their lives while at the same time a huge portion of the population doesn't acknowledge or believe in the virus itself. So, if you talk to survivors or people who've lost people to COVID, there are some themes that have made this time particularly difficult. One of them is that their losses have been questioned. People ask questions about their deaths or their illnesses that no one would ever ask in other situations. One of the first things they'll ask is, 'Well, they had pre-existing conditions, right? Or they were overweight or they were older, right?' And so these people feel not only a huge sense of grief but also an odd sense of having been questioned in ways that are painful.

I think it'll also be difficult for these individuals, understandably, as the risk of COVID recedes from our cultural awareness. Their lives have been changed disproportionately to those of us who haven't been personally affected. To have others be very excited and kind of dismissive of what they've just been through will be particularly distressing to them.

WATCH: The New Normal: Navigating grief and social anxiety after COVID

BB: What are a couple things they can do about that?

Dr. Doreen: I think one of the things they can do is prepare themselves for some complex conversations and to literally practice a few responses. I worked with "COVID Survivors for Change" and in our groups we literally work through responses that people can give when they are feeling dismissed. Or when they find themselves in a social situation that feels as though they're kind of being set aside. Things like saying, "you know, I was personally impacted by COVID so this conversation is difficult for me." Or "I lost a loved one to COVID and so I'm not able to brush it off in the same way." Having some standard responses can actually help them stay in the conversation rather than have them feel pushed out. And then secondly, I would encourage all of them to find safe, healthy places to work through the big feelings. Therapists are a good source. Faith leaders. There are also many different specific organizations working at the national level to give people those kind of support group options.


BB: Any advice for people going back to the office for the first time in a year?

Dr. Doreen: This is going to be a really big shift. The best thing we can do is own those conflicting feelings.

It can be really easy right now to feel like we need to push ahead and move as quickly as we did when we started lockdown. The trouble with that is when we started lockdown and went straight to figuring it out, we missed the processing of some pretty big feelings. So, a little ways into the pandemic shutdowns we found some cultural things like a lot of anger, a lot of conflict, a lot of depression and anxiety, even rising domestic abuse. We need to acknowledge that we're now making another big shift and it's rife with strong feelings like anxiety, maybe excitement, maybe that sense of numbing or dread like, 'Can we really trust this thing?' The biggest thing we can do is name those, work through those, be honest about them. That's going to help especially with things like re-entering at work 'cause it'll help us avoid rushing in and then facing situations that will push us to have strong internal reactions that will harm our performance in the long run.

WATCH: The New Normal: Returning to the office

BB: If people are feeling stressed about returning to the office, what should they do or say?

And what about managers? Any advice for them about helping their employees?

Dr. Doreen: It's incumbent on companies and managers that are asking employees to return to work to provide them with opportunities to talk about how huge that is.

Have a plan to say that you are ready and are present-- and you're also adjusting to this change. I think anytime we can put that word 'and' in place of 'but' it keeps us in the conversation. So, rather than saying 'I am here. I am ready to do this work in this way 'but' I'm feeling anxious, it disempowers us. It kind of scooches us off the table. Anytime we can say, 'I'm here. I'm ready and this is a really complex situation for me and I'm finding myself feeling a little on edge today. I'm just letting you know if my communication isn't on par, it's just one of these adjustment days. Or if you notice I'm taking a fresh air break, you'll understand why. I'm just working to get myself back in the groove.'


BB: What about kids heading back to the classroom for in person learning?

Dr. Doreen: Don't try to convince your kids to feel a certain way or tell kids how exciting this is.

Instead, ask a lot of questions and listen well. Say things like, 'How are you feeling going back to school? Or 'I would imagine you have some feelings of real excitement and maybe some feelings of nervousness. How can we help you with those things?' Open the door to conversation. Once children feel they can talk about something it becomes much less overwhelming inside of them. 

WATCH: The New Normal: Returning to school

For the younger kids, I think the other thing we can do is prepare them and send them off with lots of transitional objects. They are used to being home and in our presence. If they need to go to school the first few days in their homeschooling clothes, which are sweats or pajamas, let them do that. Give them a lot of grace and space to do this new, exciting and kind of unknown thing. We don't want to push them so much that we create bigger issues. We want to create daily check ins. We want to send them with a little piece of a blanket from home, just a little square snipped off and tucked in their pocket. We want to give them lots of opportunities to have lots of fresh air and movement away from school so they can be working some of those big feelings out. 

And then I'd be watching for things like isolating if they're coming home from school and not coming out of their room for hours on end. Some of that will be very important for them. They're gonna need some regrouping time alone to kind of consolidate what they've just experienced, but if they're avoiding family contact, if they are sleeping too much or too little, or if you notice big changes in their diet or appetite., those are signs that things could be going on with their mental health that you really, really want to pay attention to.


BB: When it comes to our use of tech during the pandemic, what bad habits do we need to break and which habits do we need to form once we jump back into reopening?

Dr. Doreen: We'll need to break some bad habits before we can put some new norms in place. It's easier to establish healthy norms than break bad habits.

We did not set good norms for ourselves when we began sheltering in place. Now we need our technology to connect us, educate us, we need it for work and for entertainment.

So our habit of being 100 percent dependent on our technology will hurt us over time if we don't dial that back. It's really important that we think through what kind of content we're hungry for. If it's advertisement laden or keeps track of our clicks, which most forms of technology do, if it's highly violent or sexualized, those forms of technology tend to create greater physiological and psychological dependence. Many of us who've been binging on video streaming, video games, and social media are going to have a hard time establishing new norms around that. It will be easy for us to be out and about in the world but to be constantly looking down engrossed in our digital domains.

WATCH: The New Normal: How to unplug from the digital world

BB: So where do we start to disconnect a bit?

Dr. Doreen: It's important that we begin to practice leaving our devices behind some of the time, even if it's for a quick run into the grocery store. Even if that means we need to write our list down rather than have it on our phone. Anything that we can do to provide small opportunities to experience life without a screen will let us come back to ourselves.

It's very important that we create some new norms to be able to tolerate boredom and anxiety. Two traits that we know lead us to live more satisfied lives are grit and resilience. And yet, when we're overly reliant on our technology, we subtly send the message that we don't have what it takes to handle even easy social run-ins with people in the grocery store or in the library or out on a walk. We need to offer ourselves both the opportunity for boredom and social awkwardness and find out we can live through both so that we develop resilience and grit. Those are the big things I'm encouraging people to be mindful of.

BB: Is there an age group that's been most impacted by tech during the pandemic?

Dr. Doreen: All ages of the spectrum are impacted. Those on the older end of things are emerging from this time feeling like they've mastered something that was really hard for them to master at the beginning of the pandemic. They're feeling like they've got some great new skills and now it's gonna be kind of odd for them to dial back on those. I do think younger folks who have amassed more than what is healthy, the hours of technology, are going to find it very difficult to be in the classroom or be in 'in person' meetings where they can't be scanning the internet as much as they were before. I think that's a huge issue for students, especially middle school through high school students. They've had a year now of being able to check Google for answers, to text folks to make sure they kind of have the 'right answer' and so asking them to set those tools aside in the way that they'll need to for the classroom is also asking them to risk how they do academically. There will need to be a lot of graciousness toward ourselves and others as we readjust away from screens and to more embodied connection.

BB: Are there any habits or hobbies people picked up during the pandemic that you think will continue?

Dr. Doreen: We went through cycles during the pandemic. There was the bread cycle, there was definitely the plant cycle. I do think that some of those things will carry through.

What I also hear people talking about a lot in my anecdotal research right now is that they've habituated to a slower pace. They really felt like their lives were overflowing and packed prior to the pandemic and this offered some socially acceptable ways of dialing things back. They started having a consistent family movie night or a consistent time of baking bread or of reading a paper book. I think that's had a profound, positive impact on our psychological ability to keep up. I'm really hoping some of that slower pace continues so people can say 'no' to some social interactions and dig into other relationships that feed them.

BB: What are the signs that we've had too much "alone time?"

Dr. Doreen: If you find yourself being anxious, agitated, unable to quiet your mind from racing thoughts. Maybe even feeling any increased heartbeat or pulse anytime you think about being with other people. That's probably moving from solitude as a preference into social anxiety. If you find yourself continually avoiding being out in the world or afraid of being out in the world, I would probably encourage you to talk with someone — a psychologist, an LPC, an LCSW, or a psychiatric nurse practitioner to get some tools and tips for how you can soothe yourself enough to have at least some fleeting social interactions. Knowing when you need to seek that outside help is important, and destigmatizing that as we're all recalibrating is going to be really important.


Dr. Doreen: We all are more in touch with our mortality, with the fleeting nature of relationships, with the limits that can be placed on our personal agency in order for the greater good. As we re-enter, I hope we do that with immense compassion for ourselves and others — really grabbing hold of what we've learned in terms of loving the people that we love really well, loving the things we love really well, and not wasting time. Let's put ourselves in situations where we can grow and expand and also bear witness to the growth and expansion of others by offering that compassionate invitation and inspiration to really, really engage this beautiful life now that we're being given the opportunity to restart.

RELATED: How to throw a boredom party to battle our tech addiction