You know the expression ‘be careful what you wish for, it might come true’? It’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year, because – whisper it – I’ve actually quite enjoyed lockdown. Well, big parts of it at least. I'm sorry, please don’t write me off just yet (I know how privileged it is to be able to make that statement, given that so many have had a very different experience). But I suspect I’m also not the only one feeling this way…
There’s a combination of reasons as to why I personally have found myself not only managing to get by, but thriving during this extraordinarily surreal and difficult time. You see, back in March 2020, when our nightclubs still vibrated until the early hours and the tubes were tightly packed, I was on the brink of crashing.
A few months previously, just days before Christmas, I’d sat in a warm hospice holding a cold flannel to my grandma’s forehead, stroking her forearm, as she coughed up black bile through newly-browned teeth. I loved (love? tense suddenly becomes very confusing when somebody dies) her so much that even typing this, a year on, it still makes my throat burn.
The year leading up to her death was spent travelling between my flat in London to her home in Bristol, whilst holding down a full-time job, a relationship, some semblance of a social life and desperately trying to meet my publisher’s deadlines to hand in my then-unwritten first novel. To hand it in not only on time, but also meeting a standard vaguely higher than 'an actual crock of shite'. I was struggling. Whenever I shut my eyes, I saw cardboard sick bowls and never-ending Word documents. My boss had noticed, telling me (kindly and fairly) in a yearly appraisal a month before lockdown that my performance wasn't cutting it. My hunger and drive had gone. After our chat, I realised she was right and made the decision to take a week off, to rest and recalibrate.
I called a therapist and booked onto a yoga retreat in Spain, then vowed to cut out alcohol (another source of stress in my life) until my brain felt less like a plate of reheated spaghetti. On the journey home from work, I silently wished the world could just stop for a bit – and then it did.
Are some people better at adapting to change?
All of sudden, the break I’d so craved was handed to me on a silver platter by the universe - albeit with massive and life-altering repercussions for millions. That week in the sun (pencilled in my diary as the beginning of my ‘fresh start’) instead turned into months of sitting in my flat, making video calls to the loved ones I’d been looking forward to catching up with.
But still, it gave me the time I craved to check out of reality for a while and check back in with myself. I spent proper, uninterrupted days with my boyfriend who I’d somewhat neglected for huge swathes of our relationship. I made time to go for long walks, especially during my over-the-phone weekly therapy sessions. I read books, regularly switched my phone on silent and - for the first time in forever - watched Netflix with a vengeance. God, how great is TV?
When my Twitter timeline filled with voices sharing how much they missed their family (same) and how anxious they felt (surprisingly, for once, not same), I realised I was instead filled with an innate sense of calm. But where had it come from? While my perfect circumstantial storm may have played some part, it likely wasn't the full explanation as to why I held up so well in lockdown, says Dr Helen McCarthy, clinical psychologist and author of How To Retrain Your Appetite (an exploration into the psychology of eating).
While it's necessary to take into consideration things like your housing situation (who you are and aren’t locked down with), any implications the pandemic has had on your career and your life stage, plus things like access to green spaces, Dr McCarthy also believes personality has a big part to play in how well we adapt to stressful situations. “Personality is a mix of nature and nurture. It develops from basic genetics and is influenced by our life experiences,” she says. “It’s not a fixed, immutable thing.”
As humans, we’re designed to seek out patterns based upon our past experiences – meaning people like myself, who are used to living life around blocked off stretches of time (e.g 6 months to get that first book draft in, eight weeks until we'll know if nan’s chemo worked) are more likely to view a situation like lockdown as ‘do-able’. “Repetition teaches us what to expect from life.”
When Boris Johnson first announced the country was shutting down, my immediate thought was “Those poor people losing loved ones, how is the NHS going to cope?” followed by “This is going to be tough, but we’ll get through it and the party afterwards will be fabulous” – and to be honest, that thought has remained pretty constant (even when my dad was hospitalised with COVID a couple of months ago).
When I tell Dr McCarthy this, and that my dad is also a bomb disposal engineer, who throughout my childhood would go off to war for months on end, she says it makes a lot of sense. “You know the pattern of living with stress and uncertainty for extended periods of time, and your memory bank associates it with ‘these things always end well’.”
If your life patterns have gone another way, however, it’s totally understandable that you might have found the thought of lockdown and all things coronavirus-related pretty terrifying.
Nature vs nurture, thriving vs surviving
Whether or not you’re naturally introverted or extraverted comes into play when looking at your response to lockdown too. “Those on the more extroverted end of the scale need higher levels of contact with others, it makes them feel good,” says Dr McCarthy. “Social interaction recharges their batteries.”
Whereas others who lean towards the opposite end of the spectrum need solitude to build their energy back up. “Some of my clients who immediately welcomed the enforced government restrictions are more introverted – that doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy deep friendships with others – but they appreciated the break from not feeling as though they had to go out and socialise as often.”
While I'm definitely sociable and love a gossipy brunch, lengthy phone call or a night spent twirling around G-A-Y with my friends, I'm also an only child. I enjoy my own company, often feeling the need to slip off alone for the afternoon on group holidays.
How disrupted your routine has been also makes a difference (if you loved playing team sports, then all of a sudden were told it was banned, you could find it tough, for example) notes Dr McCarthy, adding that there’s also really no ‘normal’ or expected way to respond to a pandemic. However, she tells me, it has presented an incredible opportunity for growth – that any of us could still seize upon.
“Once they get their heads around what’s going on, people are generally more adaptable, creative and resourceful than they know,” Dr McCarthy says. “Look at how many businesses have pivoted over the past twelve months. Some have found new ways of working that are proving even better than before.”
The latter is something I can attest to – as somebody who needs to zone out to write, I used to spend most of my time in the office in a corner with headphones on. After a few weeks of working from home, my supportive boss who’d encouraged me to take a break, told me she was impressed with how quickly and noticeably my performance had turned around.
Targets were once again met promptly; I rediscovered the energy to go the extra mile, and new ideas sparked easily. The hours previously spent on commuting let me indulge my natural sleep cycle (bed at 1am, up at 8:30am), or walk around my neighbourhood before starting work, beginning the day on a brighter note.
Post-lockdown anxiety: what happens next?
Now, as the government's four-step plan back to 'normality' continues to roll out, I’m left curious as to how it’ll feel going back to the noise of a heaving city. To nightclubs, to social pressures and to self-imposed expectations. Back to the heavy worry of how best to divide my time when there are a plethora of options on the table. I feel jittery about putting a year of sobriety to the test in a real-world party situation, or when presented with a glass of wine at a work event.
But the fact of the matter is this: the world will be returning to us at some point, whether or not we feel ready – and there's no point stressing over something we can't fully control. It's up to the individual as to how quickly they get stuck back into things too – and nowhere does it say that life has to be as hectic or chaotic as it was before lockdown. I'm now eager to have complete, unrestricted freedom back - to hug my friends without having to do an awkward robot dance first - and to travel. To have long dinners with a group that go on until the early hours. To re-connect in person with all the things and people that make life worth living in the first place.
Dr McCarthy’s advice on managing any feelings of anxiety that arise is simple. "Anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that you’ve detected some sort of threat. Focus on breathing to bring down the threat response, acknowledge your emotions – name them, it calms down the brain activity – and remember, you can take many of the good things you've discovered about yourself from the pandemic with you."
For her, it's been a shock realisation that she loves running, something she plans to keep up long-term. For me, I’ve learnt that it’s okay to spend a day just watching TV or reading if I want to, without beating myself up for not ‘being productive enough’ (okay, I’m still working on that... but it's come on in leaps and bounds). I’ve realised how important family is – you never know how long they’ll be around for, so Zoom call and book in time with your parents often, even if it feels awkward at first.
I know that grief hits in waves, and it’s important to sit with whatever feelings, or long-buried memories, it brings with it for as long as you need to. Don’t try to overfill your schedule to avoid them – you can't. If you can access or afford it, do invest in therapy and in turn, you'll be investing in yourself. Finally, the pandemic has taught me that there’s great beauty to be found in the smallest of things – and you’ll notice them far more when you slow your pace. Even just a little.
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