Feeling Anxious about Unlocking? Here's 8 Tips On How to Cope, Mentally

·10-min read
Photo credit: Delmaine Donson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Delmaine Donson - Getty Images

This week, government ministers confirmed that the next stage of unlocking from coronavirus restrictions will take place on 19 July. This means that close to all legal curtailments on socialising will be lifted, with nightclubs granted permission to re-open and festivals given the go-ahead.

This change, however, comes with a bleak reality – that numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths, as a result of the virus, will rise. The peak of this wave is not expected before mid-August and, say scientists advising the government, could lead to between 1,000-2,000 hospital admissions per day. Other experts have warned that the move will likely lead to high numbers of people suffering from long covid.

All of this makes for a complex situation. And, if you're feeling overwhelmed by the ocean of uncertainty that lies ahead, you're not alone.

In April, as the rules changed to allow meeting up in groups of 6, away from full lockdown, WH spoke to some mental health experts for navigating that sticky transition. In the hope that their advice helps you now, we are sharing it again.

What is post-lockdown anxiety?

'There are so many reasons why we might be responding differently to life "opening up",' says Clinical Psychologist Dr Emma Svanberg (@mumologist), who has created a course to help people to ease out of lockdown.

'These might be to do with individual differences such as how introverted or extraverted we are, our personal view of risk – but also our personal circumstances, including our health needs and those of our family, how our friends and family feel about the pandemic restrictions, and the different ways that the pandemic might have affected us.'

In a time filled with change on what is and is not acceptable, moving into a different state of rules can feel odd. 'We are having to get used – yet again – to a whole new set of social norms, and this can be really anxiety-provoking.

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'As humans, we tend to feel most comfortable when we know what is expected of us and, because this is all so new, there will be a process of figuring out what works for us. We could compare this to the sort of identity experiments we undergo as teenagers, and the awkwardness we can feel around that time while we navigate differences,' she adds.

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'After a year of being housebound during the pandemic, we’ve become acclimatised to socialising on Zoom, so it makes sense that some people will feel uneasy or awkward with in-person interactions. Even those who generally describe themselves as extroverted are noticing some social anxiety,' adds therapist Abby Rawlinson (@therapywithabby.)

'Many people are struggling with "re-entry anxiety", which is a term used to describe a specific form of stress related to the fear of being unable to adapt to previously established routines.'

There are three key reasons why re-entry can feel daunting, explains Rawlinson:

  • There are worries of catching or spreading the virus

  • We have fallen out of practice of how to socialise

  • We’ve gotten used to our new way of life and don’t want to go back to old routines

Why might socialising now feel hard?

'I don't think it takes a psychologist to know that, having been told that home is the only safe place for the majority of a year now, leaving that home might feel very risky,' explains Dr Svanberg. 'We have been living under a stressor for a year, at times feeling very under threat (not just our health but the lifestyle we were used to, the future we expected, plus big existential threats, too).'

As such, there is plenty that you'll need to work through. 'There will be a process of untangling everything that this has meant to us, as individuals, families, and as a society. I think [leaving lockdown] is being presented a little bit like us as butterflies emerging from a chrysalis, but I think that undermines how incredibly depleted people are feeling at the moment.

'It's a bit more comparable to collapsing over the finish line at the end of a marathon you hadn't trained for.' Then, there's uncertainty about what happens next. 'And we're still not sure if it's the finish line or just a rest stop. That is a lot of stress to live under, and I don't feel that has been acknowledged nearly enough.'

It's also true that not everyone has hated every element of staying home. 'Many people might have enjoyed some unexpected benefits of the pandemic, such as working from home, a slower pace of life, and spending less money on travel and socialising. Letting go of these upsides might be upsetting and anxiety-inducing, with many people wanting to keep good routines in place, rather than returning to unhealthy habits and priorities,' adds Rawlinson.

How to deal with post-lockdown anxiety

If you do feel anxious about things opening up, know that there is nothing strange or defective about this. '[Feelings of anxiety] are your body doing exactly what it is meant to. We have been living under the fear of a threat – and may have also been personally heavily impacted by that threat,' details Dr Svanberg.

'Again, not just the threat to health or potential loss, but also the less significant losses people have faced. Our bodies respond to this by moving into fight or flight mode, raising our adrenaline and cortisol levels to get us through. For some people, lockdown was a time to rest and reset, but, for many others, it was a time of frenetic stress. This means that those stress hormones have been elevated for a really long time.

'This can bring us into a state of chronic stress, where we might not even realise just how stressed we are but notice symptoms like sleep disturbance, memory problems, and irritability.'

So, how to work through this period, with as much calmness as possible? Try the techniques below.

1. Use soothing techniques

To counteract this, Dr Svanberg recommends using techniques to remind your body that you are safe, such as:

  • breathing practices (Any technique where you take a long inhale through the nose and a longer exhale through the mouth, really focusing on that exhale, can take you out of fight or flight)

  • grounding (these techniques held you to ground yourself in the present. Try naming one thing you can see, smell, touch, hear in the present moment, or sit on a chair and focus on the feeling of your feet on the ground and your body being supported)

You can also work on noticing and working on your individual stress triggers. 'It may be that we can't do a lot about stress triggers, for example, if we are living in financial instability, but that we might then want to turn to others for emotional and practical support.'

2. Give yourself some grace

Giving yourself a healthy dose of kindness can help, too. 'Practice some self-compassion as you make the transition and remind yourself that it’s natural to feel uncertain and nervous,' says Rawlinson.

'It can be tempting to push difficult feelings aside and just "power through", but one of the most helpful things we can do for ourselves is to simply accept any difficult feelings without judgement. Grant yourself the time and space to acknowledge the turbulence and let any feelings of fear, anxiety, or anger and be present without trying to push them aside or change them.'

3. Focus on what you can control

Feeling uneasy when the pandemic is, of course, not over, is very natural. With lots to worry about in the unknown, from the potential for future "variants of concern" or the thread of catching or spreading the virus, you might struggle to stay calm, in the present.

'Lack of control and certainty can be anxiety-raising. We often tend to deal with stress by trying to assert control, and when things are changing so rapidly, we can end up feeling very unsettled,' says Dr Svanberg.

'It can help to focus on those things which are certain and which we can control. I don't mean becoming rigid over what we control (e.g. filling our diaries with plans) but thinking too about how we control our anxiety levels, what we need to feel more solid again, reminding ourselves that important things like our personal connections are within our control, too.'

4. Reframe your thinking

'When we feel anxious, it can be easy to fall into unhelpful thinking patterns where we catastrophise or try to predict the future. When you catch yourself doing this, try to reframe the thought and tell yourself a more helpful story,' advises Rawlinson.

'For example, if your thought is "post-lockdown life is too overwhelming", try reframing it to: "It’s normal to be anxious about this change and I’m allowed to go at my own pace" '.

5. Monitor your exposure to the news

'Limit the news where possible. Rumour and speculation can fuel anxiety so find trusted sources that you can rely on and set a time limit for how much you consume,' says Rawlinson.

6. Set boundaries

Given that we're all likely to respond to the end of lockdown in different ways, it tracks that some people in your life, even those you're closest to, might be feeling different to you. If you are, say, invited to sit in your sister's garden for a barbeque, but you're not feeling comfortable with the idea, it's important to be truthful.

'The key is just to be honest and set the boundaries that you feel comfortable with. It is worth considering what is stopping you – is it anxiety about health or is it more social anxiety?

'We, particularly as women, can often put the needs and opinions of others above our own needs and desires. So take this as an opportunity to practice setting boundaries to ensure that this process is one you are comfortable with,' says Dr Svanberg.

7. Stick to a healthy routine

When it comes to handling anxious feelings, looking after yourself is important. 'Don’t forget the basics – maintain a positive routine that includes exercise, healthy food and sleep, and communicate with loved ones about how you’re feeling,' says Rawlinson.

'These things are just as important now as they were during lockdown, and will be key to our mental health as we transition into the "new normal". '

8. Take time to process what's happened

Trying to convince yourself that you should be able to pick up where you left off in March 2020 isn't wise. After a year of collective trauma – and much still unknown about what lies ahead – taking time to process what has gone on is key. 'I think it's really important that people take their time to process what we have all been through, what it has meant to us and what we might need to let go of.

She advises you ask yourself questions like:

  • what has been the most difficult thing for me through this process?

  • what has changed for me through this time?

  • what have I learned about myself and my capacity to manage hard things?

  • is there anything I need in order to feel ok now?

Try thinking about and journalling answers to these, to see if they help you to get some clarity on how you feel.

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