Navigating Transitions in the Midst of a Pandemic

Navigating Transitions in the Midst of a Pandemic

Fall is typically a time of transition for most people, regardless of age or stage of life. School-age children are returning from their school-free summers. College students are returning to school, often after a summer of exposure to the working-world through a job or internship. And, working adults and parents also adjust to a more structured routine.

While this transition can sometimes be stressful or challenging, most seem to acclimate after just a short period of time. This year, however, there is an added layer to this transition, one in which we have never been faced with before—Covid-19.

The last six months have been anything but typical. For many, there has been a long period of isolation, changes in location and home environment, and an inability to engage in the usual summer-related leisure and activity. I have found in my work with clients and in my personal life, that the most significant stressor of this fall’s transition, has been the return to in-person school or work environments, while Covid-19 still remains a significant health and safety risk.

For those who are struggling with this transition, experiencing anxiety, fear, or frustration, below are a few strategies that can help support.

Gradual Exposure

While ripping off the band-aid and diving right in can sometimes be the best approach to facing discomfort, in this case, it is likely not the most effective strategy. If possible, before returning to the environment that is eliciting any intense negative emotion, I suggest identifying some smaller steps first. We call this gradual exposure.

Identify some additional environments or situations that may provoke the same emotion but to a lesser degree and start there. More specifically, make a list and rank the list from least to most stressful, and work your way down. This gradual approach will support you by increasing comfort levels, helping you feel more prepared, less overwhelmed and can reduce the intensity of the negative emotions.

Cope Ahead

Before returning to in-person school or work, create a “Cope Ahead” plan. Cope Ahead is a DBT skill that supports by preparing you for a situation that you anticipate will create negative emotions. Follow these four steps:

  1. Describe the situation that is likely to create the negative emotions. Be specific and check the facts. In addition, name the emotions you are likely to experience during the situation.
  2. Identify which coping skills (including problem solving) you want to use. Be specific and write them out.
  3. Picture yourself in the situation. Be as vivid as possible.
  4. While imagining yourself in the situation, rehearse coping effectively. Rehearse your actions, thoughts, what you would say, etc. Rehearse any problems that might arise and how you would address them.

Assertive Communication

To support feeling more in control and safe in your environment, assertive communication and asking for what you need is key. It is ok to ask someone to put on their mask. It is ok to let your boss or teacher know that you are uncomfortable with the set-up of something or how others are conducting themselves.

The 3 C’s of assertive communication will help you convey this information in the most effective way:

  • Confidence—believe in your ability to navigate the situation.
  • Clear—be specific and direct about your message so that it is easy to understand.
  • Controlled—deliver the information in a calm, yet firm manner.

As we continue to navigate life in the midst of a pandemic, we will also continue to face transitions that are going to increase stress and negative emotions. Utilizing these three strategies above, regardless of what the transition may be, can hopefully support encountering these new situations and changes a little more easily and successfully.


Authored by: Jessica Oppenheimer