It is all change now. After being stuck at home, slowly we are able to go out a bit again.
There are some new phrases we are all going to be getting used to over the next weeks as the lockdown begins to ease up. End of lockdown anxiety; going back to work anxiety; re-entry anxiety; all these words and others will be popping up in our newspapers and on the TVs shortly.
This is a real thing. I am already seeing it in my psychology clinics, which are online now, but usually in Bedford and Milton Keynes. I have seen a lot of clients recently who are finding the prospect of going out of their houses or returning to work is making them anxious. They are having a very difficult time indeed. Often, they feel frustrated. They say they should be welcoming the fact that, even if we are not out of the woods yet, things are not quite as bad as they were. Yet they feel worse not better.
The first thing I always say to clients is: ‘Do not be surprised if you feel like this. You are not alone.’ We have been through a huge change as we went into lockdown and now, we are making another big change and change is often uncomfortable.
And it is not as if our fears are groundless. The virus is still there and, quite rightly, we feel anxious for ourselves and our families. We look at the prospects of getting on public transport again or our children beginning to go back to school and we worry.
Living with uncertainty at the time of coronavirus
The messages we are getting from the government now seem more complex than previously. The government itself does not seem very sure about what is going to happen. This uncertainty can add to anxiety.
It was easy to follow the simple message: ‘don’t go out’. It is harder when we are told: ‘you can go out but you must distance’. It is even harder when the experts cannot agree amongst themselves what a safe distance is. If you are going out shopping or back to work, you may be unsure what will greet you when you arrive. You will be concerned about what safety procedures are in place and if they are adequate. Then there are other people. We may feel we have been very careful and responsible but we see others who are not obeying the rules and that worries us.
We did one thing, and we can do others
There is also a basic psychological fact that we often find change difficult. Many people did not believe that they could survive being kept in their houses for months on end. But they did, they even got used to it. It became ‘the new normal’. Now some of these people are feeling concerned about returning to the life they left ten weeks or three months ago. This might include you.
It can be helpful to break down what we are afraid of. Re-entry fear has at least two components. One is fear of the virus itself. There are still new cases every day and it can be a fatal disease. The other component is a more amorphous thing. It is a social anxiety. It may be that you were always uncomfortable at your office, for example, and now you are going back into that difficult environment.
What your personality is like will matter here. If you are an introverted person, then you might have felt comfortable, you might even have felt okay being at home and not having to spend time with a wider group of people. If you are a more extrovert type, you have probably found the lockdown more difficult and are very keen to get out again Although, even if you are the extrovert type you may still feel worried about the virus and how it could affect you.
Remember that some degree of anxiety is healthy at the moment. It is the feeling which can ensure that you socially distance and remember to wear a mask, for example. But if you are feeling so anxious that you feel going back to work or taking your children to school is going to be difficult then you need to take some action.
Take it slowly to beat re-entry anxiety
There is another thing worth mentioning here. Anxiety affects our ability to focus and our memory. If we are very anxious it is hard to do our jobs well. Also being sharp, focused and ready for work takes practice and you may well be out of practice. That can all make you feel less confident about returning to work and that can mean you worry more and get into an anxiety spiral.
You may find this is a good time to prepare by slow immersion. Set yourself small goals and build up over time. If, for example, you need to get on an underground or a train soon, start with walking to the station. Then perhaps go one or two stops. If you find yourself becoming very anxious have techniques at your fingertips to help. Practice deep breathing and perhaps take a relaxing audio with you. Try different things so you see what works best for you.
If you can, do this with someone else. It will make you feel more confident and it is good to be able to talk about how you feel as you take these new steps.
Start soon, even if you do not have to do anything much immediately. Social isolation is not good for most of us, especially those of you with chronic pain who are probably feeling lonely; and the longer you avoid going out the harder it will be. Now you are allowed to meet a few more people take advantage of it. Even if it feels a bit strange at first, persist. Meeting people is a habit and it is a habit which it is healthy to re-create. Think long-term. The pandemic will mean yet more changes in our world, everything you build on now will make it easier to adapt as we go along. This also applies to getting into good work habits. If you feel you have been working at a reduced level for weeks think of ways to up your game over time.
Now non-essential shops have opened you might want to consider going out shopping if that is something you enjoy. Buy yourself something to wear or something for the house. This can be very helpful to your general mental health. You are sending a message to your brain that you can go out for fun as well as for essentials. It is part of the slow move away from a purely survival mentality.
If, after doing these things, you still feel anxious then do not hesitate to get outside help. You might choose to see an expert such as myself, and modern techniques of psychology or hypnotherapy can solve problems very quickly. If your issues are around work, check out what your human resources department is doing. Many employers are aware of the tensions and problems their employees might be facing and have put some very good support services and networks in place.
End of lockdown is a good time to change habits
While we are on the subject of habits, it is worth taking a look at the habits we may have developed over the recent period. Some may be good and helpful; some may be interfering with your life. Now is the time to look at these habits because, as life begins to change, you may find some are getting in your way.
Pay special attention to things which are related to health and the virus. Of course, safety and hygiene remain very important, but keep a perspective. If for example you are keeping your house at hospital levels of cleanliness, then it might be time to change. Think about what you are doing at the moment. Perhaps now might be an opportunity to get your chronic pain self- management skills back on track, it might even help to keep a diary for a couple of days so you get a fuller picture. Then gather the evidence, consider it, discuss it with others you trust and think about any changes which would benefit you at this point in time.
Lastly, keep a learning mindset. Look at change as a time to develop new ways of doing things and find out different aspects of your own life. We have a long way to go with the pandemic, so make your own journey as interesting and rich as possible.