Slowly, we’re crawling our way out of lockdown. And, in the clichéd words of an average therapist: How does that make you feel? Whilst there are plenty of people daydreaming about the sweaty clubs, non-stop hugs and endless socialising, many others are feeling apprehensive at the thought of returning to ‘normal’ life.
If you’re amongst the latter, you’re not alone. “While I'm excited for the return of restaurants and beauty treatments, I'm apprehensive about the social element”, explains Heather, a 29-year-old journalist. “I feel really anxious about being in social situations in which an element of the unknown is involved (even something as simple as going to the pub). And thus also having to put on an intimidating front to make myself seem less scared.”
For most of us, the past year has been spent in the company of very few people while also living in general trepidation of proximity to others. So, it’s no surprise that the idea of returning to interacting feels overwhelming, particularly for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Dan, 39, works in the music industry and was suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder before the pandemic hit. “One of my main pre-pandemic avenues for feeling less anxious and calmer was going to gigs and socialising,” he explains. “Now, I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of going out to a pub or gig and hugging friends – it’s so anxiety inducing.”
Even if you’re not feeling anxious or overwhelmed, you may find yourself surprisingly unrooted by the potential change in lifestyle. You may be enjoying the slower pace of life, and feel fearful about ramping things up again. Furthermore, as humans we crave the known, and change (even positive change) can be hard, no matter the circumstances. Remember, there’s no ‘normal’ response to coming out of lockdown, just as there was no ‘normal’ response to living in the pandemic. We all handle events in different ways, depending on our individual resources and varied past experiences.
Returning to life may take some getting used to, but luckily, we are phenomenally adaptable. We’ve survived more than a year of a global pandemic, and we can survive coming out of it too. To that end, here are some tips and strategies to help make the process marginally less daunting.
The most important thing in any situation is to honour your emotions. If you’re feeling anxious about returning to normal life, then please don’t ignore that. Share your feelings with trusted loved ones – I’m sure you’ll find they’re experiencing similar emotions in one way or another. If you’re honest about how you’re feeling now, you’ll find it easier to relax into ‘normal’ life again further down the line. There will be a lot of opportunities to go out and socialise, but that doesn’t mean you have to take them. Plenty of people will be around to make up warm bodies at any event, so take the pressure off yourself a little. If all your friends feel ready for a club or a festival, then that’s where they are at. Don’t feel you have to pretend to be there too, say no when you need to and go at your own pace.
Create your own mini roadmap out of lockdown, punctuated by the things that bring you joy. Write down the things you loved doing and the people you loved seeing pre-pandemic, and then create a plan that incorporates both. Make a booking at your favourite restaurant, arrange a daycation or plan an early morning art gallery visit (before the crowds set in). It’s essential to have future events to get excited about, so that you can keep moving forward, even if at a different pace to those around you.
Don’t want to go back to hugging everyone or shaking the hands of strangers? Don’t want to be indoors with people? That’s all completely understandable. Have a think about (or make a list of) what makes you feel comfortable and uncomfortable. Then, to start with, stick with the comfortable activities only. People will be understanding and may very well feel the same way. Once you feel comfortable with the comfortable stuff, start edging into the discomfort zone – trying out those things with the people you feel most comfortable with, knowing you can always take a step back if needed. It’s a bit like a form of exposure therapy, and will minimise your desire to withdraw altogether.
Yes, you must honour your feelings. However, the more you associate yourself with your anxieties, the harder it becomes to separate from them. Remind yourself that feeling this way doesn’t make you an anxious person, nor does it mean it will last forever – it’s simply what you’re experiencing right now. Things are always in flux, and you are much more than the sum of your current state of mind. With this in mind, make sure you savour and appreciate the times that you feel calm and relaxed.
Now is the perfect time to take a step back to assess who and what is important to you. Note down how your priorities have changed over the past year, and think about the changes you’d like to keep (or any new ones you’d like to make) going forward. This will help you stay motivated and focused, which will naturally lessen feelings of stress and anxiety and make everything feel more manageable.