Have you noticed that the pace of life seems to have sped up since the lifting of lockdown restrictions? Does it feel anxiety-provoking, adjusting to meeting up in person again after such a long break? Or have you chosen to ditch social distancing and mask wearing in public?
What are anxiety and stress?
Anxiety is a stress response to a situation that can bring on flight/ fight or freeze reactions when our bodies sense a possible threat. Hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released to help us respond quickly and put our nervous systems into a state of high alert.
Stress can be defined in numerous ways but the Mind UK website describes it as “being pushed beyond our usual emotional / physical capacity.” Small amounts of stress can be beneficial but if experienced over a longer period, known as chronic stress, can become difficult, such as we’ve experienced during Covid. It can lead to burnout if not addressed in the long term.
After nearly a year and a half of lockdowns on and off here in the UK, restrictions have all but completely lifted here in England. For me, the start of lockdown easing initially filled me with dread. We’d become so used to staying at home in relative safety, wearing masks in public places and being restricted in the numbers of people we could legally mix with. Suddenly the public was back out in force on the streets and I couldn’t quite get my head around being out there again. I tend to process situations a bit slower so my brain takes a tad longer to adjust to changes. My flight response started to kick in when finding myself amongst crowds, and the beginnings of a panic attack, shallower breathing and high anxiety, would cause me to remove myself from the situation, hopefully before overwhelm reared it’s ugly head. I’d only go into the town centre when at its quietest, usually first thing in the morning as the shops opened & limit myself to buying priority things only.
Being out again socially has been more tiring, exhausting even, at times. The first bigger gathering I went to was an outside prayer event at church. I’d underestimated how much it would impact me! It’s important to give our minds time to accommodate being more social again and do so at a level that feels comfortable and achievable to us.
Risks from Covid
Perhaps for some of us the fear of catching Covid is still very real, especially if we’re clinically vulnerable and feel more at risk. Some friends have shared how uncomfortable they were to go to church when singing was allowed again which meant they were more likely to stay home and watch online, missing out on the face-to-face fellowship. Mindset plays a big part in how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us and it may be helpful to reassess our current circumstances as to the current risks.
I had to do this a few months back as Freedom Day, when everything fully opened up, crept closer and closer. My friend really helped me address what my fears were around going out and to reframe them to be more realistic, particularly:
- Most of the population that’s been offered the vaccine have had at least 1 dose, increasing herd immunity for now.
- The risk of being hospitalised with Covid decreases with having had the vaccine.
- Covid is a disease that is here to stay. The risks are lower than when the virus was first recognised and continuing to apply good hand washing hygiene rules and mask wearing inside and in crowded places continue to be good preventative measures to catching the virus. See this BBC news article that discusses living with Covid after lockdown eases for further advice. I have heard some scientists say that it is the number of deaths that we should be more concerned about rather than the current number of cases as an indicator of COVID-19’s current status. This doesn’t deflect from those who are currently ill with Covid though.
- accepting that there’s only so much of our environment that we can control. We can’t control whether people around us will still choose to be cautious and wear masks in public areas, especially indoors or on public transport. We can only be responsible for our own actions.
- Not judging others for having different standards to our own particularly now that restrictions have almost ended. Some people have embraced all that freedom day has brought in England. However others of us are more cautious and are still limiting our behaviours, e.g. how far we may travel and avoid public transport as much as possible.
For some people, agoraphobia, the fear of people or going outside, has settled in, leaving them housebound or very anxious to go out. If you’re struggling to adjust to being around people again, a constructive way to do this is to gradually expose yourself to new situations over time.
If it’s about getting out socially again you might want to start by:
- Just going to your front door and breathing in some fresh air.
- Try walking around the block near your house.
- Go to a busier place in terms of numbers of people, e.g. your local park at a quiet time.
- Try somewhere a bit busier like a shop. (Have an escape plan in place in case of overwhelm or the start of a panic attack).
- Then keep building up your exposure to larger groups of people until you feel confident again in crowds or socialising with a group of friends.
For me, I’ve used this technique to handle busier places, e.g. my local town centre. After getting used to quiet times at the shops, I’m slowly building up my tolerance of crowds. Spending time doing my work in a local café has helped, starting in a quiet period e.g. early morning but gradually getting used to busier times and making decisions as to what I can and can’t tolerate at the time.
If you do find yourself getting panicky or needing to escape, be kind to yourself. So maybe it didn’t work out as planned this time but you can try again. Being self-compassionate and recognising your limits is also important and you’ll get there at your own pace. As restrictions started to lift several months ago, I attempted to do several tasks whilst out at the shops. I’d underestimated how long long the queues would be in one shop that had only opened the previous week, and then realised I wouldn’t have time to do all I’d planned. Being kind to myself, I had to choose to miss an online activity after and leave some of the shops out to take the pressure off myself as I was feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of tears. By deciding on this more realistic schedule, I was able to just get the most important tasks done and escape the busy shopping centre, taking time to give myself some positive self-talk and let go even of the online Pilates which had been really important to me. Some deep breathing also calmed me down in the moment & talking to someone about what had happened when I returned home.
What is causing you anxiety post-lockdown? Can you need to break it down into smaller steps to gradually overcome that fear? The examples above may help guide you.
Needing further help and support? Get in touch with me to set up a 30 minute discovery call to discuss how I can help you put together your own anxiety toolkit to better manage your anxiety better long term.