While we were counting down the days until freedom from lockdown restrictions, we were all so focused dates and vaccine rates that many of us didn't stop to think about what 'freedom' would actually mean. An instant return to social situations after months without contact (especially for those in Melbourne who have spent 245 days in lockdown conditions) is a shock to the system.
The idea of going back to dinners, lunches, nights out, parties, birthdays, trips to the malls - plus catching up on all the hair and nail appointment you missed - is understandably overwhelming, when all you've been allowed to do for months is take a solo trip to the supermarket. If you're feeling like your social battery is not what it used to be, or like socialising is just hard, rest assured, the feeling is normal.
To understand more about why this is such a common feeling, we spoke to clinical psychologist Mary Spillane Headspace App's mental health expert. Below, she takes us through her tips for managing anxiety and what to do if it's one of your friend's who is being affected.
Why are so many people feeling anxious about going back into "normal" society post lockdown?
Emerging from lockdown means we have to approach things we haven’t done in a while, like socialising and returning to the workplace. Anytime you restart something after a break, it can be a bit anxiety provoking. We will also need to adjust our well entrenched lockdown routines as well as creating new post lockdown routines. This kind of change can be challenging initially. Finally, we have been conditioned to think that leaving the house and being around people is not safe, so it will take some time for our brains to recognise it is safe now.
Is this due to social anxiety and navigating social situations or is it something more?
Whilst it is not the only reason, social anxiety and navigating new social situations is a key reason. Not only are we returning to social life, but these social environments are also different now. There are QR codes, vaccine checks, masks, density limits, etc., which are things we have not had to consider before.
Is this feeling normal?
Yes, it's normal to feel anxious as we emerge from lockdown. The anxiety will reduce over time as we get used to the new normal and build our social tolerance back up. If you feel as though your anxiety is not reducing over time, it's important to seek professional help.
What's the best way to navigate re-entry if you are having a hard time getting out again?
Take small steps, and gradually build your confidence back up. We know that avoidance leads to anxiety, so try not to avoid things completely. If you have an event that you feel anxious about, try and go for a little bit or attend the event with a supportive person. Using alcohol to navigate these situations can also be a form of avoidance, so try and limit your alcohol intake as you're learning to adjust.
What can we do to help alleviate these feelings more generally? Can things like meditation help?
Mindfulness tools such as the Headspace App can help you to identify when you’re experiencing anxiety and stress, and can teach you how to relate to these feelings in a more helpful way. Often when we feel uncomfortable emotions we try to avoid them or react in unhelpful ways, which can lead to further difficulties. Mindfulness can help build our tolerance in sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, without needing to react to them.
What about if this is affecting someone you're close to? How can you help the people around you navigate post-lockdown anxiety?
If you think someone close to you is struggling with post-lockdown anxiety, it can be helpful to let them know in a compassionate way that you have noticed they’re struggling and ask if there is anything they need from you. However, if they have been struggling for more than a couple of weeks and it's affecting their daily life, it’s important to encourage them to seek some professional help.
Do you have any other advice or tips for people after what has been two challenging years?
These tips are good to keep in mind as we continue to emerge from lockdown. Go at your own pace, focus on what you can control, try and stay focused on the present moment, be kind to yourself, get help if you need it.