As we begin to celebrate the easing of Covid restrictions in New South Wales after months of being in lockdown, I’m now faced with confronting an uncomfortable truth sitting at the pit of my stomach: I’ll miss my time in hibernation and returning to normality actually leaves me a little terrified.
At a time where I should be popping the champagne, putting away the black leggings I’ve been wearing for months on end and finally unboxing all the clothes I’ve treated myself to (hey, it’s called retail therapy), I’m desperately holding onto my last few moments in lockdown when I have no obligations to see people.
I sound like the most horrible, over-privileged person revealing this truth, but please hear me out.
There’s no doubt lockdowns have brought a wealth of challenges for millions of people, whether that be in the form of not being able to see loved ones, financial issues, mental health struggles or even battling with the effects of the virus itself.
But aside from the downfalls, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had so many positives during this time, too. I’m grateful I’ve been able to spend it with my family, I’m grateful to have had food on the table every day and I’m grateful to have had a stable income throughout. My days have never been busier and the time I would’ve spent hanging out with people in a non-lockdown scenario has been reassigned to focusing on growing my business. All in all, it has been a fulfilling and productive period in my life.
But what I’ve cherished most is the fact that lockdown has given me the time to finally reassess my idea of balance, to realign my goals and to spend time working on myself – without the pressure of seeing or talking to many people. As an introvert, it’s been an absolute blessing.
But there’s another side to this ‘blessing’.
It means I’ve relied on lockdown as a means of avoidance, and that can’t go on any longer. I’ve made life a little too comfortable and soothed myself into a false sense of security. My biggest fear is: have I become more antisocial?
It’s concerning to think the return of normality — the very thing millions of people have been yearning for — only leaves me a little worried.
Why is there this monster inside of me dreading the easing of restrictions? Why can’t I just be content and untroubled like everyone else seems to be?
Instead, there’s looming anxiety stemming from an obligation to socialise when I’ve been doing pretty OK being alone. Anxiety about having to adapt to a new routine once again, and anxiety about needing to be extra productive on top of everything I’m currently doing. There are only so many minutes in a day, so how am I going to juggle it all once everything picks back up again?
This feeling is what is now referred to as ‘post-lockdown anxiety’.
“If you’re feeling more apprehensive than excited about ‘freedom day’ and life afterward, you may be experiencing post-lockdown anxiety,” explained Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno. “It describes the feelings of worry, stress, anxiety and nervousness about reintegrating back into the world.”
Thankfully, Sokarno also offered me solace in the fact that I’m not the only one experiencing post-lockdown anxiety.
“It’s very normal, mainly because many of us have settled and adjusted to this new lockdown routine and now that’s being threatened. Life has changed in many ways and for some people, their lockdown routine is a positive thing,” she explains.
“Perhaps you don’t feel as stressed in your everyday life so the thought of transitioning back to a full-time job, commute and juggling childcare routines can be overwhelming. You may have enjoyed having quiet times on the weekend or getting back into that hobby because you had the time. The minute things open back up, there’s a chance life will change pace with calendars getting booked out and social activities back on the agenda.”
I know others might also be confronting post-lockdown anxiety for a myriad of reasons — you might be ashamed for any weight you’ve gained or lost in lockdown or feel like a failure for not achieving anything, and if you’ve started a new job without having ever met your co-workers in real life, that first in-person meeting with your boss and colleagues can cause fear.
Additionally, there’s still the anxiety of catching Covid, too. Even though I’m vaccinated and a high percentage of our population is double-dosed, it doesn’t change the fact the virus lingers in our community.
“There’s the overarching fear of contracting the virus and it can be hard to know how cautious we need to be. Just the idea of being around crowds can feel threatening for some,” Sokarno notes.
I feel unsurpassable guilt for cherishing my final moments in lockdown, and yet, I can’t seem to shake it. It makes me a bad person for having these thoughts, right? Sokarno disagrees.
“Don’t worry if you’re not feeling excited about post-Covid life,” she reassured me. “If you’re feeling anxious, show yourself some compassion and remind yourself that we’ve had a global health pandemic to deal with and it’s OK to need time to adjust.
“Take things at your own pace and try not to worry too much about how everyone else is reacting to the changes. Instead, expose yourself to your new surroundings at your own pace and check-in with your support network when you need to.”
By no means do I not want lockdowns to lift nor do I want to avoid seeing people altogether — I’ve already scheduled dates with my closest friends and have plenty of holidays in the pipeline. But we don’t all have to be jumping for joy and desperately needing to wine and dine the second lockdowns are lifted. We also can’t dismiss the fact that those who have introverted qualities or are socially anxious will definitely need extra time to adjust to whatever ‘new normal’ awaits for us on the other side.
How to ease back into the ‘new normal’ if you’re socially anxious
If you’re feeling even the tiniest bit stressed or anxious about re-entering life post-lockdown, know you are not alone. Here, Sokarno shared advice for easing back into normality.
Take it slowly
“Don’t try to rush back to the way things used to be. It’s OK to take things at your own pace and do what feels most comfortable. Focus on a day-to-day approach,” Sokarno explained.
“Rather than throwing yourself straight into a situation that might feel overwhelming, start off smaller. That means going for a walk with some friends rather than meeting them at the pub (where it could be a lot to handle).”
To add to this, those who understand you best won’t be offended if you politely decline plans, so set yourself boundaries that make you comfortable — you should never feel pressured to please others.
But don’t avoid things entirely
While it’s acceptable to decline invites, don’t make it a regular habit and become completely reclusive.
“It might feel tempting to stay home under the covers of your doona but don’t get in the habit of always choosing that option. Instead, say yes to the things you feel are important and gradually build up from there.”
Focus on what you can control
There’s no doubt change is terrifying, but it doesn’t mean everything in your life will become chaotic once restrictions start to lift. Concentrate on all the wonderful things over which you hold the power.
“Focus on the things in your life that you can control, like mindfulness, self-care, exercise, gratitude and creativity.”
Challenge unhelpful thoughts
“If you catch yourself assuming the worst, try to reframe any unhelpful thoughts to find a different way to view the situation. Avoid any ‘what ifs’ or moments where you dwell on something that could happen and instead challenge those thoughts with more positive scenarios.”
It’s all about seeing things as a glass half full.
Maintain your lockdown routines
“If there are some positive habits you created during lockdown, try to keep them up.”
Do you now start your day with a workout? Do you go for short walks around the block during work hours to help clear your head? Want to reserve your Friday nights for dinner on the couch binge-watching Netflix because that’s what brings you joy? If any of your lockdown habits make you mentally happier, then there’s no reason to say goodbye to them.
Talk to someone about your post-lockdown anxiety
We’ve all had a pretty rough time being in and out of lockdowns since the beginning of 2020, so it’s completely OK if you’re not feeling your best.
“Reach out to friends and family and explain how you’re feeling,” Sokarno said.
“If needed, speak to a professional who can be instrumental in providing the support you need to help get back to life post-lockdown.”
Lifting restrictions is definitely a cause for celebration, but it doesn’t make the adaptation process any less overwhelming. Please remember we’re all going through our own healing process and, for some, this process is more of a marathon than a sprint.
If anything, slow and steady wins the race, so continue showing kindness and empathy towards family, friends and strangers, because you never know who, like me, might be feeling anxious about the return to ‘normal’.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. In an emergency, call 000. If you are concerned about your health, speak to your GP who will be able to advise a correct treatment plan.