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Experiencing anxiety in a post Covid world

It feels like a step forward to be coming out of lockdown; everyone seems to have been craving freedom forever, but it’s also a bit scary.

From the confines of your home, you probably found yourself reminiscing about your favorite restaurants, longing to sit in a cinema again and even fantasizing about returning to work to see colleagues and endure the sardine atmosphere of the tube once again. Basically, we craved the human contact we had so easily taken for granted pre-pandemic.

However, now that our dreams are becoming a reality and restrictions are lifting across much of the world, there are lots of people reporting feeling anxious about exposure to other people. You may find yourself a little confused, with the changes feeling both exciting and nerve-wracking.

Id like to reassure you that these sentiments are not only normal but really not at all surprising. I would also like you to understand that the process of getting comfortable with social gatherings is likely to take a while. We’ve just spent a year adjusting to one set of novel circumstances; reversing that process – even when it seems like a positive step – is still change and typically humans don’t like change. Especially when it comes to our safety and survival. For over a year we have been trained to be suspicious of anyone outside our small bubbles, be that a neighbor, the post man or even our own dear family. It’s an inversion of nature to consider loved ones as a potential threat; a highly uncomfortable paradox. Essentially, we have learned to mistrust other people and when we don’t feel safe we’re bound to feel anxious.

Another contributor to our trepidation, is that we can’t guarantee that this course of action is the right one. Scientists are continuing to fully understand the nature of the virus and whilst they can make valid educated guesses, not even the experts can be 100% sure what the safest next steps may be. (Not forgetting the voices from non-experts out there that only serve to add to the confusion and uncertainty). Whilst it is a good idea to trust the expert advice, no one can guarantee that they’re going to be right on every point. This can make us anxious because normally, when we don’t know the answer we defer to someone who has more knowledge than us, but because this virus is so new even the expert’s knowledge base is somewhat limited!

Furthermore, can we trust that anyone else is following the rules like that say they are? Did they really only meet one friend yesterday? How can we guarantee that someone’s been vaccinated and what difference is it going to make? If they haven’t had a jab yet does that mean that they’re taking a personal risk or endangering others? We just can’t be sure yet.

Even seemingly small things can be contributing to our anxiety that you may not have considered. For instance, getting used to not wearing a mask. We’ve spent a long time training ourselves to understand that not to wear one is dangerous and to be hypervigilant spotting someone else not wearing one. Going unmasked may bring up feelings of vulnerability now and hesitation around others who are mask-free. We’re going to need to re-train the brain yet again and that’s going to take some time and effort.

It can be tempting to want to ‘get over’ the last years’ experiences and all the fear and grief that came with it. It can seem easier to bury it and ‘move on’ but when we do this of course the trauma is still there, buried within us. It’s challenging to reconcile the fear, uncertainty – even despair - of only a few months ago with the safety and freedom being granted presently.

Conversely, you may be experiencing uncertainty and like the good news can’t be trusted. It’s not that our environment isn’t truly getting safer, it’s the notion that by moving on, everything we went through was meaningless. There’s a part of us that believes we must continue to grieve, to remember and honor everyone who suffered, who we lost and who are still being negatively impacted by the pandemic. This may feel particularly poignant if a touch of survivor’s guilt is in the mix. The problem is we may never obtain the ‘closure’ that would typically signify the end of the grieving period, there may never be the ‘a-ha’ moment when you realise what all this was for.

The first step you can take in addressing your anxiety is just that: address it. Rather than run around filling your time with distractions, or hide and try to numb out the feelings, be prepared to acknowledge the uncomfortableness and anxiety, giving a name to them. Get specific; does the feeling have a particular colour or shape attached to it? where do you feel it in your body? Is it exacerbated when you are in a particular room or before you’ve eaten or haven’t slept well? Ask yourself if what you think the feeling is really what you’re feeling at all? For example, anger is commonly a mask for fear.

Once you’ve thoroughly explored the feeling and its origins, you’ll be ready to create strategies to alleviate the sensations. For instance, creating a routine is effective in combating uncertainty. You may wish to pre-plan an exit strategy from a social event and establish your boundaries as to how many people you’re prepared to mingle with right now. If you find yourself in a confined space with other people and this is stressful – for instance getting on public transport to get to work – you could plan to take a walk in a park or even around the block when you get to your destination, before going indoors to be among more people.

If it’s meaning that you’re seeking, why not put aside a few minutes a day to consider what lessons you have learnt due to covid, somewhat like you may do a gratitude list at the beginning or end of the day. These lessons can be practical, like ‘I finally learnt how to bake my granny’s top notch lemon drizzle cake’, to less tangible aspects like being grateful to have made the effort to come up with creative ways to connect with friends and family when physical contact and presence wasn’t possible. There will be people who really shone during the crisis – perhaps their empathic nature or leadership skills really shone through in way that would have been possible in the typical hierarchy of the workplace.

If guilt is the prevailing feeling that you’re experiencing an antidote to this may be contributing back into society. Our communities are in a fragile state and in desperate need of friendly volunteers to create a supportive environment. Speaking of the environment, it is helpful to think of how the world has actually benefitted from the pandemic. It may initially seem perverse in the midst of such blatant disruption, but there have been some clear benefits beyond any one’s individual experience. The phenomenon of working remotely has had a wide variety of impacts, ranging from reducing the office/location hierarchy and allowing employees to structure their day more freely to create schedules that fit around family time and self-care. Education, entertainment, our social lives etc etc have all taken place online in the last year; while this may have lacked the in-person connection, it has made all these amenities available to a global community regardless of age, race, location or privilege.

Ultimately, a positive outcome of the pandemic is it has exposed humanity’s resilience in a way most people won’t have experienced in their lifetime. Give yourself some credit, you have faced and survived a crisis that has rocked humanity, take some deep breathes down to your belly button and don’t berate yourself for experiencing anxiety in light of the unknown.

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