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Pandemic Regression and
Its Effect on Our Relationships

Andrea Salvador

There is no doubt that the pandemic has altered us in many ways: physically isolating, turning our bedrooms into schools and workplaces, and putting portions of our lives on hold. Over this stressful, exhausting, and divisive year, we have  been forced to make adjustments to our lives in a world where  the threat of a deadly virus is looming  over us. Some of the changes we have  made are more apparent than others – wearing face masks and gloves, maintaining distances from others in public spaces, and holding in double-take looks when someone nearby coughs or sneezes – but others, just like the virus, were invisible. We may have unknowingly slipped into our old mindsets, behaviors, and ways. We could be entertaining thoughts we once deemed immature and selfish and fallen back to bad habits we’ve already broken. This is called regression, and it is  commonplace for us to experience this nowadays.

According to Mary Elizabeth Dean, an educator and writer of mental health awareness articles, regression is one of the common defense mechanisms that we use during particularly stressful and demanding periods of our lives. It occurs when we return to, or remain cemented in, a certain way of thinking or behaving that we should have already outgrown. In children, manifestations of regression include returning from an undisturbed sleeping pattern to an unpredictable one, suddenly reverting to tantrums after establishing good communication skills, and having toilet accidents and ‘baby talking’ despite growing out of them. Since adults constantly monitor a child’s growth and development, signs of regression are generally more noticeable – and indeed they are being spotted during the pandemic, as children constantly absorb the tension and uncertainty around them, according to Jennifer Clopton, who interviewed Nancy Close, an assistant professor at the Child Study Center at the Yale School of Medicine. Close maintains that the pandemic has incited extreme stress in children, leading to struggles in daily tasks such as eating, sleeping, and impulse management.

For those of us who are past the age of parents and pediatricians constantly tracking our development, pinpointing regression due to the pandemic gets blurrier.

We could likely be regressing to our teenage selves – especially when we are  living in our childhood homes, in the constant company of our parents and siblings. As one of the 138,060 international students currently studying outside Australia, I was set to move alone to Melbourne in July 2021 — however, since Australia closed its borders months before I was scheduled to leave, I haven’t spent a single day without my parents in the same house as me. This has certainly impacted my dependence on my parents. Pre-COVID-19, I was building up to the independence an international student required: running errands on my own, budgeting meticulously, and psyching myself up to overcome homesickness. Currently, I’m irrationally scared about going to a store in the mall without my mom beside me, trying to keep tabs on my online shopping expenses, and have to psych myself up to simply go for a walk alone in my village. After confiding about my experiences with a close friend, she assured me I wasn’t alone. Following the bus ride from school, she would usually walk a couple of streets to reach her house. Now? She can’t imagine herself doing the same thing alone due to a fear she can’t name, aside from the threat of COVID-19.

In addition to becoming dependent on our families, we might reacquire our carefree sleeping and eating habits, unearth old hobbies, and return to our former mindsets, all due to the environment that reminds us so strongly of our past. Many of my friends have become fixated on old interests, such as binge-watching cartoons like Paw Patrol and My Little Pony for comfort and happiness. Others have picked up their crochet hooks and knitting needles, and dusted off their bookshelves to pick up old reads. Another friend of mine shared she noticed many in our age group regress by returning to the attitudes of immediacy and self-satisfaction: attempting to host extravagant parties, going to the mall spontaneously for entertainment, and complaining about a year being wasted without stopping to think about how COVID-19 affected others more personally.

We could be reliving the lives of our younger selves, even though we had  dismissed that portion of our lives as one we would rather have buried. A friend who used to be stellar in passing assignments on time currently struggles with maintaining this level of productivity. “This isn’t who I usually am,” she said, frustrated with how her work now piles up. Another friend, whom I used to joke had overcome the challenge of replying to messages, has mentioned that she isn’t talking to people “once again”. (Thankfully, I am one of the few she still replies to.)

Regression isn’t explicitly unhealthy, but once it interferes with our relationships with others, a red flag needs to be raised.

How can we spot regression as the root of interference in our relationships? This defense mechanism is inherently personal, and we all have different benchmarks for growth, but a general way to determine this is to ask yourself: Did I think, speak, and behave this way when I was younger? (If the answer is yes, and that unsettles you, you are likely regressing.)

Regression places a strain on our relationships with those close to us; the defense mechanism is a breeding ground for miscommunication and negativity. We can feel helpless, trapped in roles that we have already played but cannot seem to get out of, forced to watch repeated conflicts unfold. This, in turn, causes a surge of cynical emotions in us, from panic, anger, to isolation -- the latter practically magnified, given the self-isolation no one is exempt to nowadays. Regression opens the gate to a slippery slope that sooner or later, will need to fight to climb.

With our families, we might be quicker to lash out and throw temper tantrums, despite being well past the acceptable age of outbursts. We could pick petty fights on topics that have been swept under the rug. At the same time, we can become extremely clingy and depend on them to assist us in making decisions.

With our friends, whom we have  established comfortable banter with, we could become overly sensitive, overreact, and overanalyze their words and actions. These regressive actions could stem from our anxiety over the uncertainty of maintaining friendships online, unintentionally making us revert to the times when we were still approaching solid footing with others. Old power dynamics may suddenly reemerge, taking  us back to a time when we wanted to ensure we belonged in a group, cherry-picked a certain person as our best friend, or felt challenged by the newcomer in our clique.

I’ve definitely fallen prey to the challenges of regressing friendships. I find myself nipticking my actions, backreading conversations, and constantly wondering if I’ve done anything wrong when I see my old school’s friends have video calls without me, like my self-consciousness has been amped up. In my new school, I’ve been much less forthright and confident in reaching out to establish friendships, even when I never shied away from doing so in the past. I also constantly compare my current social circle with my other classmates’, worried that I’m somehow not doing ‘enough’ to make more friends — when this harmful mindset was one I grew out of at the start of high school.

With our partners, old insecurities may resurface and make us more critical of each other. We might feel more vulnerable and defensive than ever, and put up emotional walls if we had spent a long time doing that in the past — no matter the current level of comfort we feel with our partner. The worries and doubt we once harbored at the start of intimate relationships might unexpectedly reappear, throwing us off the course of a progressing relationship.

Frankly, the pandemic is still wreaking havoc, and as long as we are steeped in the unpredictability, distress, and the fear that COVID-19 has delivered to our doorsteps, we are at risk of regression and its consequent detriments to our relationships. Whether we are the ones affected by regression, or on the receiving end of it, acknowledgment of its harsh effects is the first step. This paves the way for open communication, allowing us to consider how we can support each other best. More than ever, we need to extend empathy and patience — not just to others, but to ourselves. Sharie Stine, a recovery expert and counselor, recommends that we “fake it till we make it” — combatting regression by conditioning ourselves to act in more mature ways, even though we don’t necessarily feel like doing so. Social psychologist Jennifer Goldman-Wentzler suggests we take different actions when being faced with regressive patterns. “Instead of slamming on the door when your mom blames you for something, stick around and explain why you disagree,” Goldman-Wentzler explains. When faced with the temptation of reacting normally — and at times, petulantly — we are encouraged to change our reactions to be more self-respecting and mature. 

Despite having these tips in mind, moving beyond regression has proved to be a challenge for me. I continue to be far from the person I used to be before pandemic, and I’m still trying to come to terms with how much more self-reliant I’d be today, had I been able to gain independence studying abroad. Lately, I’ve been redeveloping myself through baby steps: responding to my friends’ messages more consistently and chatting with a classmate whom I’d never spoken to before. A few days ago, I walked around my village alone for the first time, no parent in sight. Celebrating the littlest, most absurd milestones motivate me, especially with the knowledge that it will pay off when it’s finally time for me to separate from my family and friends here in my country, to go navigate the unfamiliarity of my study destination. However, this is just my experience, and my own way of trying to overcome my backpedaling.

Noticing regression in our pandemic-altered lives is not a sign of impending doom or certain failure. If anything, it’s a reminder to mentally check in with ourselves, those we care about, and the state of our relationships with them. With the isolation we feel, it’s important to remember we still belong with in the lives of those we love, instead of being weighed down with the difficulties of not being able to physically connect. Establishing and maintaining relationships in the time of COVID-19 isn’t easy, especially with the hazard of regressing, but trying our best to sustain our bonds with others will be worth it when we emerge on the other side of this tunnel. Right now, we can focus on a certain positive: regressing isn’t wholly detrimental if it gives us the opportunity to become more in touch with ourselves, providing us with the motivation for further growth. Sometimes, we need to retrace our steps and go backward, to chart out a map forward.