Across south-eastern Australia, people are in the process of emerging from various lockdowns. For some, this will be the end of more than 100 days of home-schooling, physical isolation, Zoom meetings, and 'Groundhog Day' routines at home.
While the promise of returning to 'normality' can be exciting, for many it can also cause anxiety, stress and worry. Are restrictions being eased too fast? What if the health system is overwhelmed by cases?
It might seem contrary to common sense that returning to past 'freedoms' would be stress provoking, however, some anxiety about emerging from lockdown is normal. And there are good psychological reasons for people to be experiencing such worry.
There were positives for some
Many people have experienced some aspects of lockdown as beneficial, such as spending more time with family or housemates, greater flexibility in work hours, and not commuting to work. People may not look forward to losing these positive aspects after lockdown ends.
People have adapted new habits
Research says it takes an average of 66 days for a new behaviour to become a habit. So many people will have formed lockdown habits they now need to break.
It is yet more change
Any significant change in our lives can be a source of stress. And this stress can be exacerbated when change is thrust upon us, such as mandated roadmaps out of lockdown. Additionally, while lockdown may come to an end, there's uncertainty regarding COVID-19's future impact on our lives, creating a new backdrop of anxiety.
Fear of the unknown
For many of us, our feeling of being able to control what happens in our own home provided a sense of safety during lockdown. So resuming life in public spaces, where you can feel out of control, can seem daunting.
In addition, a lot of our resumed 'freedoms' rely on the choices and behaviours of others - vaccinations, mask-wearing, checking in - which are also out of our control.
Different emotions can coexist
As humans, we have an amazing capacity for positive and negative emotions to occur at the same time - we can feel joy and enthusiasm, while also feeling anxiety and apprehension. Such emotional dissonance can be unsettling for some.
I am worried about my kids
Early in the pandemic, there were many fears around the safety of older people and their vulnerability to COVID-19. Now our thoughts are turning to our children.
A better understanding of the causes of our worries about easing restrictions leads us to numerous strategies that can be used to help us successfully cope with the anxiety of leaving lockdown behind and transitioning back to 'freedoms'.
It is OK to not be OK
Allow yourself to feel with empathy and without judgement. This can be especially important for children. Allow them the safe space to express how they feel, and aim to acknowledge and validate their feelings.
Seek social support
As has been emphasised as a strategy to survive during lockdown, talking with supportive friends and family is just as important when emerging from lockdown. Research tells us that social support is an important buffering mechanism against stress and anxiety.
Try not to stay avoidant
It could be very easy to stay home and avoid anxiety-producing situations like interacting socially again. But studies tell us while avoiding an anxiety-producing situation can help us feel better immediately, avoidance makes us feel even more anxious about those situations over time. Try and gently (and safely) challenge yourself and your negative thoughts.
In just the same way as we developed habits during lockdown, new habits can be formed as we re-emerge. Sometimes small, incremental changes to our routine can help with this, such as returning to work or social situations gradually.
Re-engage with fun
With your new freedoms, try and make the activities you engage in enjoyable and/or meaningful to lift your mood.
Stay in the moment
Deep breathing or mindfulness can help people get through difficult emotions and situations. While many things about the pandemic are out of our control, strategies to decrease our stress levels can help us feel better and more in control. For most people, anxiety and stress post-lockdown will be mild and fade quickly as we settle back into our lives. However, if you (or a loved one's) distress or anxiety persists, you may benefit from professional assistance. We have an amazing capacity to adapt to change, but sometimes it can take some work. Or, as I like to remember - 'Nothing ever stays the same. This too shall pass'.
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