Emerging from Lockdown - What Can We Expect?
Our professional and personal observations of the lockdown period have been that for many people, the initial feelings of heightened anxiety, panic and entrapment as we went into lockdown slowly transitioned into a comfortable and predictable new norm, what has been referred to as ‘The Lockdown Bubble’. For a large proportion of society who are not at the front line of tackling this pandemic, and who have observed the unfolding of events from the safety of their own homes, whilst horrifying, the threat for these people has been “out there”.
Now, as we shift from the past few months of lockdown life, and towards restrictions becoming lifted, we anticipate moving towards a ‘new normal’. No one knows as yet what this will look like. Many of us will be feeling a little uncertain at this time due to not knowing exactly what is in store for us next! It is quite probable that many of us will be feeling a range of different feelings, and these may reflect our life experiences prior to lockdown, as well as any events that may have occurred more recently. Most likely, we’ll all be feeling a mixture of both excitement and anxiety. Obvious excitement about having restrictions lifted and about seeing our family and friends again, whilst at the same time anxiety about what life post-pandemic will be like.
Indeed, it’s natural and totally acceptable for us to be worrying about this next phase and how our own life and the lives of loved ones have been, and will continue to be, affected by the pandemic. We will all find ourselves asking questions about the near future because the human mind is trained to problem-solve and greatly dislikes uncertainty. And one major thing that people are struggling with just now is the uncertainty about what this emergence will look like, and how aspects of society will have been changed both temporarily and permanently by the pandemic. Our threat systems will be activated, just as they were prior to going into lockdown. Fears of catching the virus may re-appear and it’s also likely that other triggers for anxiety, such as the fear of social evaluation by others will re-emerge for some people. As we come out of the initial crisis period of the pandemic, we are also likely to be hit with the reality of the economic and social consequences experienced and have understandable concerns about the direct impact on our own life and those of our loved ones. Feelings of loss will also be common amongst those who have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses over the last few months. Adults returning to work will likely feel apprehension about returning to their daily commute and re-engaging with their work colleagues. There will also likely be apprehension to travel by air for some time, and people will think more about the necessity of travel for work or leisure. And of course, for the most vulnerable in our society, contracting the virus will remain a major threat until a vaccine is produced and it will be expected that anxiety levels will remain higher for these people.
A Time of Adjustment for us All...
The important thing to remember is that this will be an adjustment period for us all, and like with any change, some adapt quicker than others. Change is difficult for us all so it will be important to pace ourselves and to remember that it will take time to adjust to coming out of lockdown in the same way it took time to adjust going into it. Our anxiety levels should decrease in the weeks after we emerge but if they don’t, it’s important to talk openly to a trusted family member or friend about these feelings. It will also be important to seek professional help if you are feeling very distressed by these worries and recognise that you are continuing to avoid engaging with others and reconnecting with daily life. Safety-seeking behaviour and avoidance are key factors in anxiety disorders so continuing to avoid social gatherings or occasions and ongoing feelings of dread, panic or fear will be signs to look out for.
Our advice would be to take small steps in the emerging process. Small adjustments first so as to not overwhelm yourself or your senses. During lockdown, we have been forced to become acutely aware of others around us and the importance of keeping at a distance from them. So, the inevitability of having more people around us once we emerge will likely spike anxiety levels, similar to how we felt in the lead-up to lockdown. As humans, it’s completely natural for us to go into survival mode where our threat systems get activated. So small steps, resisting setting yourself difficult goals or new challenges and being kind to yourself will all help. For those familiar with it, mindfulness will also be a great tool to use during this process where the aim is to keep the mind focused on the present moment. We would encourage those unfamiliar with it to consider learning more about it and how it can help both in the short and longer term to manage anxiety. What will also help is clear information from our leaders in order to feel safe and confident during this next phase. Anxiety thrives when uncertainty is present, so the guidelines we follow need to be as clear as possible to increase our confidence in the process.
Helping Children & Young People...
When it comes to helping children and young people during this phase, we would stress the importance for parents to be as mindful as possible about their own anxiety levels, as children will be closely monitoring their parents’ reactions and behaviour in order to determine how they should think, feel and act. For children who were struggling with anxiety pre-lockdown, this will be a particularly nerve-wracking time and parents may see an increase in both internalising and externalising behaviours. There may be a fear of being once again faced with former pressures relating to schooling or friendships, or other issues, that they had been glad to have avoided during the lockdown period. Those children and young people who have left their final years of primary or secondary school, may have been saddened to miss out on seeing their friends for a final time, before moving on to pastures new, or exam results may have been on our minds.
There may have been some specific challenges for your family during this period, such as tensions in the relationships within the household, more tears or behavioural outbursts, changes to the mood of a family member that has been more concerning, physical health problems, perhaps a difficulty has become more prominent for a loved one, there may be financial or employment worries, and sadly some families will have had to deal with a bereavement. Many students finishing school and university this year will likely have seen changes occur to their immediate plans of travel, gaining work experience and starting jobs and is thus a very uncertain time for this 18-25 age group.
If you are worried about the mental health of a child or young person, do reach out and talk to them. An initial strategy would be to support them within the family unit initially, reaching out to loved ones for emotional and practical support. If you are finding that the difficulties haven’t eased and you remain concerned, do seek professional support. For children and young people, earlier intervention is hugely beneficial in reducing suffering sooner, intervening before difficulties may have become entrenched, and improving the trajectory so that the difficulties do not become so severe for them in the longer term.
Lockdown has been a period of reflection for all of us and for many, a realisation that we had been sprinting on a treadmill at an unsustainable pace before it. Many of us have reconnected with what is actually important to us and what our values are, and it will be important for us to not lose sight of these again post-lockdown. There is no doubt that difficult life decisions will need to be made for many of us but keeping aligned with our value systems as we make these decisions will be key. Whatever your unique circumstances and experiences, no doubt the recently coined term ‘coronacoaster’, describing the ups and downs of our mood during the lockdown experience, will resonate with many of us. It is normal to expect some changes to the way we all feel and act whilst we are all coping with this global pandemic. Most likely, you will have been doing the best you possibly can to manage, in your own unique set of circumstances. Despite the natural feelings of anxiety, try to focus on the positives of connecting again with family, friends and the wider community. As you have heard time and time again during recent months, we are all in this together, and that strong message stands firm as we emerge from lockdown.
Dr Fiona Wilson Fiona Mackay
Clinical Psychologist & Clinical Director Child & Family Therapist