Lockdown is easing in different ways and at different paces across the UK. The easing of lockdown brings opportunities to see friends and wider family, to re-engage in outside hobbies and to get back to the jobs we may greatly value. But for many of us, even the happy, exciting and much anticipated changes can be challenging for our mental health. Can having more physical freedom, paradoxically, have a negative impact on how emotionally free some of us feel?
There has been a lot of talk of a ‘new normal’ – so ‘normal’ is in a process of change. Uncertainty is going to be the reality for the foreseeable future. This is not something that sits comfortably with many of us; fear and anxiety are perhaps the most common emotional responses we feel as we approach the release from lockdown.
So, what are some of the factors that may be driving our anxiety?
Change. Finding ways to pull ourselves through lockdown took a lot of emotional energy; we may have found ways to cope - or even to flourish - which we don’t want to leave behind yet. We may also worry about having to adjust to necessary changes - for example, wearing face masks triggering traumatic flashbacks or no longer being able to easily gauge other people’s facial expressions as we pass them in the street.
Health. Some of us fear becoming ill with the virus or passing infection on to loved ones, as the risk increases when people interact.
Work pressures. Across the country, people are being called back to work and the prospect of a return carries with it a need to weigh up the potential safety risks to ourselves and family, with the need to earn money and restart the economy.
Social pressures. Some of us have become comfortable in our own space in lockdown. We may therefore feel worried about reconnecting with people and overcoming initial awkwardness.
Having to say goodbye to the silver linings that lockdown brought. So for some of us, lockdown has had some unexpected silver linings. Those of us with anxiety, for instance, may have finally felt ‘understood’ by the rest of the population as it suddenly became ‘normal’ to be concerned and fearful of the world. Even for those of us without an underlying mental health condition, the simple factors of having more time to sleep, being able to spend more time with loved ones and not having to deal with the overstimulation of life in the outside world, may have led to a greater sense of general wellbeing. Indeed, Jasmine Cooray, an integrative counsellor, noted that many of us who have high levels of internal pressure have experienced “lockdown relief” as lockdown gave us permission to relax without having to constantly perform to an audience.
What can we do to face the challenges that the easing of lockdown brings?
- Acknowledge that our feelings are reasonable. Every time we experience change, it is going to feel unusual, unsafe or even scary so it’s understandable - and okay- to feel anxious.
- Be patient and pace ourselves. It may take time to find our way back or to find a ‘new normal’ that works for us. There will be great uncertainty as it will be hard to predict what the course of the rest of the year will look like. Because our situations are unique to us, we must show ourselves compassion and should try not to judge ourselves based on what others are doing. We should go at our own pace whilst not letting that be an excuse not to challenge ourselves when we can. It’s easy to allow the seclusion that was necessary in lockdown to become deliberate isolation as lockdown ends.
- Be understanding of others. We might feel angry or frustrated at others’ behaviours and feel the urge to judge them or to make comments on social media that reflect our own anxiety. It’s important to remember that everyone is different and may be facing an internal battle that we can’t see. We can’t control others’ behaviours, nor should we want to; so, commenting online can be unhelpful both for ourselves and for the people we are directing the comments at.
- Control what can be controlled. There are many things we have no control over that cause us anxiety but there are some things we can plan for so having an action plan for managing the things we can control can help us to deal with the uneasiness that comes with uncertainty.
- Share our feelings with those we trust. Sharing how we feel with others can help us to process how we’re feeling and may even take some of the power out of the worry we’re experiencing. Expressing our feelings can also help to place anxieties that feel very intense or powerful into context. Sharing how we feel can also invite others to do the same and can lead to shared understanding which in turn can help us to feel understood and less alone in our anxieties.
- Take opportunities to reset and relax. Having to adapt to a changing environment can be both physically and emotionally draining so we must regularly practise self care.
- Build up tolerance. It’s only by gently building up tolerance that we can move through our fears. If we try to do something that challenges us on a daily or weekly basis - no matter how small - we are making positive progress.
- Celebrate the wins (no matter how ‘small’). When consumed by anxiety or fear, it can be easy for us to forget or to fail to notice our positive achievements. We should try to keep a note of what we are proud of and to record good things as they happen.
- Focus on the things we have learned and achieved. Many of us have been tested in ways we could have never imagined over the last few months and have found new ways to manage - or even to flourish. This alone is a sign that we are resilient and have the inner tools to deal with the new challenges that have arisen from the easing of lockdown.
So as lockdown eases, yes, there will be much cheering, celebrating and over-indulgence. Everyone will be so happy, won’t they? But many of us know deep down – even if we try to join in the party – that it comes with plenty of dread. Don’t be ashamed or embarrassed. It’s surprising just how many people share our anxieties. So acknowledge them; be aware of the uncertainties that others may also be experiencing and, while still nudging ourselves along, back into the social world, be patient and kind to others – and to ourselves.