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Debra K. MooneyApril 11, 2021
(iStock/Parten Kukhilava)(iStock/Parten Kukhilava)

I vividly recall returning from my first Ignatian silent retreat almost 20 years ago. It was about a 25-minute drive from the Jesuit retreat center to my house in suburban Cincinnati, and halfway home I was overwhelmed with the traffic, noise, crowding and colors. It was a staggering sensory overload, but I now know my transition experience is not uncommon for retreatants.

With the promise that all Americans will have access to Covid-19 vaccines by the end of May, many of us feel excited for our return to the ordinary. But there will be unanticipated and undesirable reactions during the transition from sheltering in place and working from home, similar to the re-entry process after a retreat.

All the options re-opening before us (literally) will cause choice overload and cognitive exhaustion.

Noises will be louder, colors brighter, touch more tactile. We will experience traffic on Sunday as weekday rush hour; shopping at the mall in May will feel like Black Friday after Thanksgiving. Returning to normal social spacing and large group interactions will lead to social fatigue. All the options re-opening before us (literally) will cause choice overload and cognitive exhaustion.

What can be done to ease the transition back to regular life? The answer may lie in the guidance offered to Ignatian retreatants: Continue following an Ignatian way of proceeding. Within this framework, here are six suggestions for an effective transition to post-pandemic wellness.

Identify the positives during the pandemic. In video conversations, I have noticed people talking about the extreme stresses they have been coping with during the pandemic. But when asked about moments of gratitude amid lockdown, people offer many profound responses, such as appreciating dinners with the entire family, enjoying lunchtime walks with their partner, improving their homes and making them more comfortable, and visiting local parks for the first time. I have also heard about “mini-joys” or daily uplifts, including the ability to wear slippers all day, bake a favorite treat from scratch or binge-watch a worthy television series.

Anyone can use the tool of an Ignatian annual examen to prayerfully find healing graces and beauty in the past year.

Gratitude has been found to have a range of benefits—emotionally, socially and physically. People who focus on gratitude and God’s blessings are more optimistic, happy, helpful, compassionate, empathic and forgiving; they are also more likely to stick to an exercise plan, sleep well and choose healthy foods.

Beginning with St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuits have shared a way of praying, called an examen, to notice God’s presence and goodness in our life. We are invited to pause and review meaningful moments and recognize the Spirit in the experiences. Anyone can use the tool of an Ignatian annual examen to prayerfully find healing graces and beauty in the past year.

Recognize that you have been transformed. Living through Covid has changed each of us in ways that are important to notice. It is helpful to consider how to include some of the experiences of gratitude that you have identified in your examen into your new normal, such as making plans to continue monthly hikes in the forest or regularly wear comfortable clothes. Conversely, we need to consciously drop actions that were helpful for coping through the pandemic but which we do not want to continue going forward. These might include excessive exercise (or a lack of exercise) or indulging a sweet tooth.

Remember that “haste makes waste.” According to social scientists, it takes 60 to 90 days for new habits to form and become automatic. So give yourself a couple of months to gradually return to old habits or to develop a new routine that fits the new you. A quote attributed to the three-time Olympic gold medal bicyclist Kristin Armstrong describes how this can be an opportunity: “Times of transition are strenuous, but I love them. They are an opportunity to purge, rethink priorities, and be intentional about new habits. We can make our new normal any way we want.”

Pinpoint emotions and desires. Just as an attitude of gratitude relates to wellness, so does the ability to recognize and manage emotions. A humorous meme that spread early in the pandemic was the word coronacoaster, used to characterize the extreme ups and downs felt during social distancing and isolation. It is worthwhile to avoid making momentous life changes and decisions until these emotions have steadied. Similarly, we should reflect on pent-up feelings of mourning for our many losses, minor and major, and allow time for grieving.

Avoid making momentous life changes and decisions until emotions have steadied.

Additionally, the time in lockdown may have revealed powerful yearnings related to relationships, vocations or other mindsets. For example, a friend of mine has recently taken a leave of absence from a prominent position in a successful organization to consider a change to more socially purposeful work. Another friend has found that their feelings toward a “Covid bubble” companion may be more than platonic.

Mark Thibodeaux, S.J., calls these “the great big desires that God has placed in our hearts.” Prayerful discernment can help us interpret the thoughts and feelings behind these desires: Are they superficial or will they genuinely produce feelings of Ignatian consolation if acted upon? If the latter, discernment can guide us to move on the yearnings in ways that Father Thibodeaux says “will lead to faith, hope and love for God and our fellow neighbor.”

Focus on those you love. One difference between transitioning after a spiritual retreat and after Covid is that everyone around us has also experienced the pandemic. But each of our reactions are distinctive and individualized. Talking to partners, family, friends and co-workers about reactions builds companionship and provides opportunities to be a supportive person for and with others—both of which relate to spiritual, mental and physical well-being.

Rejuvenate. In the same way that we feel tired after sitting for hours in a car or on a plane, sheltering in place was not restful. Instead, it made us restless. As we begin to spend more time outside the home again, anticipate mental and physical fatigue, and engage in activities that will restore your energy and vitality.

Relatively early in the pandemic lockdown, Brendan McManus, S.J., wrote how he was living through Covid-19 as if it were an Ignatian retreat, relying on his “Jesuit training to be able to read [his] feelings, respond well, and act in a compassionate way.” We are now coming to the end of a once-in-a-lifetime experience: transitioning back to a regular and routine life following a global pandemic. With continued attention and awareness—an Ignatian way of proceeding—the process of re-engagement will not only be healing but one of mental, physical and spiritual thriving.

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