A couple of months ago, the government announced a four step "roadmap" to see the country out of lockdown and ultimately, free of any and all COVID-related rules. The earliest that *all* restrictions could be dropped is 21 June (a Monday), meaning that many people have already anointed 25 June (a Friday) as the Big Day of Freedom (and are already planning what to wear).
Whilst plenty are fantasising about diving headfirst into a sweaty, crowded dance floor and hugging their pals with wild abandonment, others are feeling more apprehensive at the thought of readjusting to life after lockdown (as well as – quite fairly – not wanting to put all their eggs in a Boris-shaped basket...).
If you're in the latter camp, firstly, just know that you aren't alone and secondly, there are steps you can take to make this transitional process feel less daunting, says psychologist Nadia Svirydzenka, who is also a lecturer at the De Montfort University in Leicester.
Is it normal to feel worried about lockdown ending and 'normal' life returning?
"Going back to ‘new’ old routines will feel unusual and can even make us fearful, anxious, frustrated, angry or nervous," Dr Svirydzenka explains. "Especially as we've moved so far from what 'normal' was for us before COVID."
She notes that it's important to try and understand our now-established patterns of thinking, behaving, and feeling. "Throughout the pandemic, we've developed new habits in response to keeping safe with the increased threat of COVID, as well as managing our expectations and emotions when it comes to lack of social contact and pre-COVID opportunities, such as travelling and exploring our interests."
Dr Svirydzenka says that when those patterns are challenged with the ease of restrictions and re-opening of work and social spaces, it can be tough. "It will definitely take time to adjust (much like it took us time to adjust to living in lockdown). So, no matter how exciting and hopeful, changes and new opportunities can always give us a sense of apprehension."
She adds that the glorified visions of everything instantly snapping back to how it was in 2019 may not be all that realistic either, and it's something to be mindful of, "Expecting that it will all go back to the exact same way it was before COVID is setting unrealistic expectations and will only lead to further feelings of disappointment, frustration, and even anger."
Reactions will vary from person to person, Dr Svirydzenka notes, saying that some people will want to jump into new opportunities headfirst, whereas others will be more reluctant and may even avoid all social contact for a while – and it's important to be mindful and respectful of whatever other people (friends and family) are feeling.
How can I feel less worried about COVID restrictions ending?
Go at your own pace
"A year in, we are all too familiar with second wave threats and even as vaccinations are starting, new mutations [may occur] and the ongoing rollout is still set to continue for at least another year – we're not promised the same safety as a world without COVID that we would wish to return to," says Dr Svirydzenka. She advises taking these changes and opportunities at your own speed and ignoring any pressures from friends and family who may be going at a quicker pace.
We're likely to initially be a tad rusty when it comes to socialising too, she notes, and that bustling streets might feel overly loud (which our bodies can interpret as a threat). "Socialising always has the potential to make us feel apprehensive, now there's the added uncertainty about how to handle some interactions safely too. We don't want to offend anyone, or overstep safety boundaries still in effect." It is important to remember though, Dr Svirydzenka says, that all of these are reasonable concerns and can be tackled with planning.
Avoid making comparisons
Dr Svirydzenka also says that while comparing ourselves to others is common and very normal psychologically, it likely won't be helpful in these circumstances. "Talk to trusted others about how you're feeling," she recommends. "Equally, being accepting and non-judgemental with yourself and others as you go through this process will be crucial."
Prepare to be flexible
"While there's hope for a new normal, where our lives regain a sense of pre-COVID normality, we also need to acknowledge that we will be going through the process of community-wide healing from the trauma of loss that we have experienced," Dr Svirydzenka explains, adding that our expectations need to follow suit. "Our new normal is about being flexible and continuously adjusting to uncertainty, and while this is inherently uncomfortable for us, it's something we need to learn to cope with for our own wellbeing."
She recommends limiting how far into the future you plan (e.g. look at what's happening week-to-week, as opposed to months in advance) to give a better sense of control and limit disappointment. "Focusing on the present will be an effective way of managing expectations and help to prevent dwelling too much on the 'what-ifs' of the unpredictable future."
"Reconnect gradually, start with those your trust and slowly scale up," Dr Svirydzenka advises. "Negotiating locations, deciding when to wear a mask, whether to stop for a chat on a street – all of these things will be a hit and miss and it's important not to be too hard on yourself as you get out more. Aim to learn and try again."
Social connections are vital to our sense of wellbeing and mental health, she adds. "Not only do they fulfil a fundamental psychological need to belong, but they also give us support, they bring us joy, and they help us make meaning of our lives and everyday experiences. Human contact, touch and hugs, not just seeing faces via Zoom or Facetime, is essential for our happiness." So don't forget to check in on your friends who have health conditions and who may not feel comfortable (or be able to) join in with events too.
Create to a healthy lifestyle
Creating a positive routine that includes exercise and getting fresh air, healthy food, sleep, asking for help when necessary and maintaining social connections and communicating with people is a good idea. "These ingredients haven't changed and will be key to our mental health and wellbeing post-lockdown, just as much as they were during," says Dr Svirydzenka. "Not relying on alcohol for mood boost is also important. For some, these might have slipped in lockdown, so taking this time to reset would be crucial."
Deep breath, everyone! Let's take it slow and steady. ❤️
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