(This is Part 9 in an ongoing series on managing stress and anxiety during difficult times.)

It is hard to believe that a year has passed since our world turned upside down. The first article I wrote last year talked about having to create new maps to deal with this worldwide crisis. In the course of the year, we have all learned how to wear a mask. If you are like me, you probably have a collection of them. We have learned how to social distance. In my conversations with people, many families have gotten to know each other again. Zoom has become a normal part of life. Many have learned the joy of a five-minute commute from the bedroom to the office space in the house; for many, that is also known as the dining-room table. We have reopened our churches. As a pastor, I learned about disinfecting products, how to use the electrostatic sprayer we invested in, and have livestreaming Mass or prayer times down to an art.

Now, with the vaccine available and the reality looming that our lives will move beyond this initial crisis, it is realistic to expect people’s anxiety to increase. Will the vaccine be safe? Will it last? Will I be safe after, if I go out and do not wear a mask? What about the variant strains? Many parents want their children back in school but worry if they will be safe. I know most pastors are worried if we will get everyone back when we do not have to limit the capacity of the church building, or have we lost some of the flock forever. This is one of my biggest worries. I may not ever go back to the gym or feel comfortable sitting in a movie theater, but I can live without those things. I will never be able to understand how people live without the faith. For me personally, what has been the compass on my new map has been my faith in Jesus. I have always believed, but part of the new map for the post-COVID world for me has to be Jesus.

So, how do we handle the anxiety of reopening and the loosening of the restrictions? One practice that I recommended last year was the art of relaxation breathing and mindfulness. If you decided to learn and practice these things, then, you have the first part of a coping strategy post-pandemic. The reason this is the first step is that it is the coping skill for all the others. The second step is to begin to slowly reopen your life and surroundings. Breathe deeply when you feel anxious or fearful. For example, if you have not been shopping, going into the store may be overwhelming. Breathe deeply on your way in and be mindful of what you are buying. This could be a very productive experience because if we are mindful of what we buy, then, we can begin to change our diets and save money. When you feel ready to return to Mass, do the same thing. Find out from your parish what Mass has fewer people, what procedures are being used to disinfect the pews, how is Communion handled, and any other information you may want to know. Give yourself permission to leave if you become overwhelmed by your fear but remember to return the next week.Always default to the data you have available. Our emotions are not facts but our response.

Another piece of reopening needs to be the practice of gratitude. As the pandemic has raged on, it has been very easy to become depressed and pessimistic. I think we all have had a case of the COVID blues from time to time.  Much has been lost; but much has been gained. One way to begin to live post-COVID is to adopt the practice of gratitude. Sit down every day and list the things you have learned since last March that you are grateful for. If you cannot think of anything, here are some things to prime the pump: I am breathing. For all the doctors, nurses, hospital workers and nursing-home workers, etc., who went to work every day to care for those who were sick. Thank God for all the researchers who helped make the vaccines that are available to us. For all those who work in grocery stores, gas stations, fast food, etc., who went to work every day so we would have what we needed. Be grateful for your family, especially those you only saw on FaceTime or Zoom. Be grateful for the return to simpler things in life.  Children have learned to play again and maybe have read a book or two. We adults have been forced to slow down and hopefully picked up a few new hobbies. I am hopeful that we all have learned to be more appreciative of what we have and what is important. One sure way to reduce our anxiety level in a post-pandemic world is to change our thinking about what is important and what is not. Our health is more important than a cell phone; our family is more important than more money in the paycheck, and the list continues.

I have been pondering how this virus was the great equalizer in our world. No country on earth was exempt from it. I remember last March walking into the store to buy some groceries and realized that there were no bananas, toilet paper or cleaning supplies. Shelves that normally would have a lot of soup were almost empty. Here in the United States, we had become prideful and thought that the stuff we read about in other places could ever happen here. Well, it did and has. One important way to reduce our anxiety as we reopen and live with a post-pandemic world is to remain humble as a country and as individuals. We are not the Creators of this world; we are simple stewards. We are part of the entire human family, and we are interconnected with the entire world.

I preached a homily in March of 2020 in which I said I did not want to return to “normal.” I still do not, because that normal was not healthy for many of us. A year later we have the chance to rebuild our world, our parishes and our lives in ways that can be healthier and holier if we wish. Will there be anxiety? Yes, but there will be joy, too. Focus on the joy and the gratitude and the anxiety will be manageable and not something that gets in the way of life.

Father Thomas Konopka, L.C.S.W., is the director and a therapist on the staff of the diocesan Consultation Center. He is also Pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Clinton Heights, and sacramental minister for the parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph, Rensselaer.