How to cope with post-lockdown anxiety
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve discussed many topics related to the extreme changes we’re all facing, and provide guidance, and support to those who need it. Although I feel tremendously grateful that the UK can now ease restrictions and transition out of lockdown, it’s important to realise that for many, this period can also be a time of great stress and anxiety.
While some will be breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating the fact that here in the UK, we’re beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel. However, UK mental health charities and experts have said that reuniting with family, friends and colleagues and returning to some of our pre-pandemic routines has the potential to trigger or increase anxiety for a variety of reasons.
In Scotland, a survey conducted found that over 58% of Scots feel scared, anxious or apprehensive and a further 38% say it will be a long time before they will feel comfortable socialising in the same way as they did pre-pandemic.
The parallel pandemic
The monumental impact that Covid-19 has had on mental health and wellbeing throughout the world prompted the Head of WHO Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, to declare that “Poor mental health has become a parallel pandemic.”
Furthermore, according to research by the Northern Ireland Assembly, mental health problems associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath are “likely to be profound and felt for many years”.
Increasing vaccination rates and the end of lockdown won’t make this parallel pandemic disappear overnight. This is why it is vitally important that those experiencing heightened anxiety about this transitional period have access to the mental health and wellbeing support that they need.
Not everyone is in the same boat
According to the head of advice and information at Rethink Mental Illness, Laura Peters, “It’s important not to assume that everyone’s in the same boat. Everyone will have a different set of circumstances to navigate as restrictions start to ease, and it’s a natural human response to feel anxious in certain situations or during times of uncertainty.”
Similarly, clinical lead for Mental Health at Bupa UK, Glenys Jackson, says “At the moment, many of us have even greater concerns about employment, education, health and finances. It can feel very overwhelming and challenging to have so much uncertainty around us, so it’s important to remember that these are normal responses to the circumstances we are all in.”
Those who are affected by feelings of loneliness and isolation as a result of lockdowns could find themselves “left behind” and “stuck” as restrictions ease, says Robin Hewings, director of the Campaign to End Loneliness. A survey conducted by the ONS from October 2020 to February 2021 found the level of loneliness across the UK had increased since Spring 2020.
When we’re suffering from feelings of loneliness, isolation, and disconnection from those around us, often the relatively simple act of reaching out to connect with someone can be extremely challenging.
“Lockdowns did have a big impact on our wellbeing,” and isolation has a “large impact on self-esteem,” making it harder for people to pick up the phone and reach out to others for help” says Robin Hewings.
It’s ok to take things slowly
According to the Mental Health Foundation, recognising that you need to go at the right pace for you is important, so the first thing to remember during this time is to take things slowly. You are far less likely to feel overwhelmed if you slowly ease your way back into pre-pandemic activities.
During lockdown, our lives had become somewhat predictable; we’d established our routines and understood the health protocols. Now that we’re able to return to work and socialise, and that children have returned to school, things may not be quite as clear anymore. We’re in a period of dramatic readjustment and reintegration into society, so it’s best to take small steps.
If socialising in a big group makes you anxious, begin by only seeing one friend at a time, in a space where you feel comfortable. Exercising with a friend can also be a great way to transition back to socialising. Small, gradual changes are always easier to make than sudden, big adjustments, so try to always go at your own pace.
Control what you can and remember: you can’t control everything
Many people have expressed concerns that as lockdown restrictions ease, some people will completely disregard the Covid-19 containment measures that have been such an integral part of our health and safety for over a year.
The BBC spoke to Naomi Quinn, 45, who says she is anxious about a reduction in restrictions: “My fear is, as soon as things go back to normal people won’t wear their masks, sanitise their hands and they might disregard the rules.”
Naomi Quinn is certainly not alone. The Guardian reported that the most recent Covid-19 social study conducted by UCL researchers found that 57% of respondents were concerned about Covid cases increasing and 53% were worried about a lack of adherence to social distancing.
Unfortunately, this kind of behaviour is inevitable, as not everyone adheres to health protocols. But this is out of our control, so instead it’s important that we try to control our response to others’ choices.
Andy Fox, deputy director for public health at Lincolnshire County Council, says “If people are going out and they are nervous about whether or not the place they’re going to will be COVID secure, it’s okay to take small steps and you don’t have to go to that business if you’re not confident it will be COVID secure. Instead go to a business that you are confident is COVID secure and that does [follow health protocols] properly.”
Practice mindfulness, gratitude, and self-compassion
Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist, says, “Starting your day with a short mindfulness meditation can be helpful to give you an understanding of what kind of emotional state you’re in so you can be sensitive to that but also not be dictated by amplified fears and anxieties.”
I’ve written extensively about the mental health benefits of gratitude. As we take our first steps towards gaining some semblance of ‘normal’ life, I feel it’s important to reflect on the contributions of countless people around the world who enabled us to be in this position. Without their efforts, the UK wouldn’t be where it is today, and for this I personally feel deeply grateful.
I feel gratitude for the dedication and hard work of those who developed the Covid-19 vaccines, and those who facilitate their distribution; the scientists, virologists, doctors, nurses, and health care workers who all played their part. And on a smaller scale, I feel grateful for those who were conscious and caring towards others by wearing masks and socially distancing.
Perhaps take a few moments now to focus on what you feel grateful for in regards to the end of lockdown. But remember, if you can’t think of anything, that’s ok too – and that’s where self-compassion comes in.
As educational psychologist Dr Kristen Neff says, “With self-compassion we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” During this period of drastic change where we are doing many things for the first time in possibly over a year, practicing self-compassion as we go at our own pace is essential. Dr Claire Maguire’s post on self-kindness explains why self-compassion is important, and includes ten simple steps to start cultivating it.
I hope you’re able to be kind to yourself during this period, and that you and your loved ones look after your emotional wellbeing.