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Moving from Lockdowns to Unlocks - Coping with Reopening Anxiety

Is it ok that I'm scared to go back to normal life?

What if I’ve forgotten how to socialise and make small-talk?

Can I hit the snooze button on this whole return-to-normal thing?

Are we even ready for an unlock?

If you’ve had one or more of these thoughts (or anything similar), know that you aren’t alone. After almost 18 months of Zoom meetings, online school, virtual happy hours and Facetime movie nights, for better or for worse, many of us have gotten used to these new routines. But as the world is experiencing rapid rollouts of the vaccines and restrictions begin to life in many countries, you may find yourself feeling more worried about going back to things as they were. If this is you, know that you’re not alone in this.

The pandemic has made drastic changes to our lives, for better or worse, we’ve all slowed down, reflected, prioritised and regrouped. Some of us might have started a new venture, discovered a new skill, baked the best Banana bread, moved to places we’d never thought or just learned to stay afloat. However, months later, what started as craving for things to return to normal at the start, some of us now find ourselves in a tricky position of feeling ambivalent, nervous and worried about going back to normal. While we haven’t yet entirely returned to ‘normal’, things are beginning to shift - we can almost hear those wedding cheers, backyard barbecues, the cubicle chatter and the squeals in the playgrounds. For many, just the thought might be anxiety-inducing. While the end of isolation and lockdowns feels closer than ever now as many countries lift restrictions, remove rules on masks and begin reopening public places, whether we are ready or not, the change is coming, even if this transition is being welcomed with mixed emotions. That being said, we need to know that we aren’t alone in what we are feeling, and that there are a few things we can do to cope with this feeling.

The pandemic changed the way we lived, communicated and engaged with the outside world. With the majority of human interactions moving from in-person to the medium of the internet through a computer screen or smartphone, we have all yearned, at some point, for face-to-face communication. But even those who in the initial phases craved human contact have grown accustomed to social isolation over the course of the lockdowns. Although the lack of human interaction has led to feelings of loneliness and anxiety, there is research which suggest that the majority of people still feel worried about being able to physically touch a loved one, give a hug or attend social events, even though they are fully vaccinated. As things move back to opening up, the end of the lockdowns and return to normal can bring up feelings of anxiety, fear or resistance in people. For those of us who seek quieter lives and prefer to be alone, the pandemic has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for them. Over time, many of us have adjusted to the habits and routines we built in this time and now that the end is near, it is hard to imagine life which didn’t involve sweatpants, home baking and pandemic Tik Tok content.

If you find yourself not feeling ready as yet to return back to ‘normal’ (or the ‘new normal’ as some would say), know that you're not alone in this and that your feelings are extremely valid in this time of uncertainty and high stress. There are a few techniques or things you can do which can be a good guide to help you ease back into things.

Identify your feelings & Acknowledge them

The first and most important idea is to take time to understand your feelings and trying to sit with them. This can help better accept how we are feeling and in turn to help us find ways to address those feelings. The past year and beyond has been traumatic and it is ok to feel conflicted. Sitting down with our feelings, acknowledging our grief, trauma, fears and anxieties can help to normalise and destigmatise them as well. Give yourself the time and space you need to process what you’ve been through. Know that unlike other collective traumas and grief provoking experiences such as natural disasters or race-based violence, which you may have seen in the news but not been directly exposed to, the pandemic has impacted the lives of virtually everyone in the world in some way or another, no matter where we are in the globe. As we enter the next phase of post-pandemic life, making sure to process those feelings can allow us to cultivate self-compassion and create our own closure for when we are ready. That being said, we all have a different set of experiences to work through this time. You may opt to do this through writing down your feelings, engaging in activities that feel soothing and grounding (like being in the midst of nature) and practicing mindfulness or breath work, talk with someone you trust or getting Mental Health support.

Take care of yourself

Make yourself a priority by taking care of your physical and Mental Health by taking steps to have a routine which ensures that you eat balanced and timely meals, find time to exercise and ensure you get enough rest. As you look to get back to work and socialising, be mindful of having boundaries to ensure that you are not overworking and stretching yourself too thin. These are all things that you can do to create an optimal environment for your mind and body.

Look out for your loved ones

According to experts, the number of adults who were struggling with a Mental Health condition was up to 53 percent in July of 2020, and it is expected that there will be a longer-lasting Mental Health crisis spurred by the pandemic. As things open, there are many who may struggle with their feelings and feel that there is something wrong with them as they see others outwardly celebrate shifts to a post-pandemic mode. Additionally, people have found themselves struggling to cope with the isolation, uncertainty and loneliness through this time and it is important to check in with people we care about and provide them the reassurance that we are there to support them through this. This can help them feel loved and less lonely through what they are experiencing.

Evaluate what worked & focus on what brings you joy

The pandemic has given us a chance to evaluate our choices, lifestyles, priorities and explore what really truly matters to us. Engaging in activities such as meditation, crafts, journaling, or breathing exercises are all associated with relieving stress and anxiety and might be helpful to get through this time. If you’ve picked up a new enjoyable hobby, you might want to look at making them a part of your routines going ahead. The slower lifestyle also gave us a chance to take stock of what matters. Know that you don’t need to necessarily recommit to all the obligations we’ve had before - you are allowed to avoid things which felt stressful and keep the rhythms which felt good.

It’s ok to slow down and take baby steps

If you feel anxious about getting back out in the world, its ok to slow down and take it one day at a time. For instance, you can start by scheduling communicating and meeting loved ones and those who will understand and respect your privacy. As the pandemic isn't over, it is important to monitor the Covid-19 risk in your area and take risks which you feel are safe for you. Go at your own pace, because everyone is figuring out what the “new normal” looks like at the same time. Getting back to things should be looked at as an experiment and not an exam. It is really helpful to recognise that you need to move forward at a pace which works for you, without having others bully or pressurise you into doing things just because they are doing it. It’s important to discuss concerns with those close to you, but also to allow other people space to move at their own pace as well.

Focus on what can be controlled

In times when you can’t control a lot of things around you, focus on what you can manage or plan for. You may also choose to also have a plan in place to managing things you might find difficult. Focussing on the present can help you do your best with what you have today. With regulations changing frequently, and lots of conflicting media discussions, trying to keep a focus on the moment can also be helpful and can help us feel hopeful as well. Focussing on what we can control also includes shifting our present to the now so we don’t get caught up in worrying about the future and the past. This can also help us to not dwell on "what ifs" or what was "supposed" to happen.

Boundaries are healthy - It’s okay to say ‘No’

Before the pandemic, we almost lived in a ‘Yes-world’ - where much like hustle culture, overcommitting is a sport, the same can be said for social activities. The pandemic has given us all a new perspective on the importance of making time for ourselves and setting boundaries that can prevent us from ultimately feeling emotionally drained. It is ok to say ‘No’ to the very things that you feel are not in sync with your priorities or values. We often shy away from turning down things, especially with loved one, but it is helpful to think that sometimes saying ‘No’ to a loved one is in the best interest of our relationship with that person as it protects us from building resentment when we compromise our own needs and comfort level for them. That being said, we need to also be respectful and understanding when others set boundaries of their own as well.

Prioritise your own Mental Health and Wellbeing

One of the things about being isolated from others through the lockdown reduced our worries and anxiety around picking up the virus as we had a great deal of control over choosing whether to come into contact with others. As we reopen, some may experience increased health anxiety which can manifest as preoccupation with thoughts about getting sick or frequently checking for symptoms. Through this time, it is imperative that we take care of our Mental Health as much as we do of our physical health. Focus on the basics of nutrition, rest, connection and self-care and remember that if you need help, reach out for it and it will be there to help you get through, be it through a trusted loved one, a support group or a Mental Health professional.

As we move from lockdowns to unlocks, it is a good time to reflect on and take action on our learnings from the past year. What are habits you want to keep? What are parts of your pre-pandemic life do we want to restore? What habits do you not want to take forward? Of course the anxiety of the unknown can be overwhelming - while some might feel giddily happy about being able to return to normalcy, others may secretly feel like this is all happening too soon. Since we all have gone through this entire experience differently, our reaction to it will be different - so don’t judge yourself too harshly based on how others are getting through this.

Everybody is facing uncertainty and challenge, and we will move through it as best we can with our own coping mechanisms and at our own pace, and that’s absolutely ok.


Written by: Vedica Podar

July, 2021


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