Dr Elaine Cameron, University of Stirling
The Scottish Government has indicated that soon we will be able to visit shops, go to the gym, enjoy libraries and museums, and even meet friends from other households for a meal in a restaurant, with more changes to follow as summer arrives. While this is unquestionably something to look forward to after months of restrictions limiting our day-to-day activities, for many of us this is also a source of acute anxiety. Reasons for feeling stressed or worried will be different for everyone, but it’s important to note that feeling anxious is a normal response to this big shift in our lives.
Some people will have specific concerns about lingering covid risk, how to keep up distancing and hygiene behaviours in busy public places, or how to manage large groups and social situations they haven’t encountered in months. For others the sense of anxiety may be linked to more general underlying worries about adjusting to life post-lockdown, such as going back to overly busy schedules or losing positive aspects of lockdown life such as spending more time with family. These worries are understandable as many of us have experienced extreme upheaval in our daily routines during lockdown and with the easing of restrictions might come the prospect of further upheaval as we transition ‘back to normality’.
One contributing factor exacerbating these feelings of anxiety is the ongoing uncertainty about when the covid-19 pandemic will be ‘over’ and a lack of trust that this new normal will last. As humans we are notoriously bad at dealing with uncertainty as it can diminish our sense of control, our ability to plan ahead, and our confidence to manage a situation. Another factor that might amplify our anxieties is the feeling of being overwhelmed. While most of us will welcome back opportunities to socialise, travel and have more fun, there are also high expectations about ‘making the most’ of our new freedoms, of reuniting with the many friends and family members we haven’t seen since before the pandemic – and of doing so as soon as it’s permitted. We might also feel overwhelmed at the thought of trying to keep up with the latest rules and managing to ‘do the right thing’ in relation to government guidance, our own perceptions of covid risk, and in relation to others’ views and behaviours which might be different to our own. No wonder we feel it might all be a bit too much!
Luckily there are simple steps we can take to help us cope with these feelings of anxiety as society re-opens its doors. First, rather than worrying about the ‘what-ifs’ around whether there will be another rise in covid cases and more lockdowns in future, focusing on the shorter-term will help us feel more in control and able to make plans and use our time wisely. Second, taking things slowly and recognising this is a journey back to normality rather than an overnight switch will help us to reduce the expectations we place on ourselves in those first few weeks and realise we don’t need to do everything all at once. Taken together that might mean prioritising two or three activities you want to achieve in the first few weeks after restrictions are lifted and focusing on planning for those so they are enjoyable rather than stressful. Being prepared by checking the latest government guidelines and making plans for how to overcome possible barriers to sticking to them in different situations will also help us to feel more confident and in control.
Other strategies that will help us feel more able to deal with the upcoming changes are the usual suspects for managing stress: sleeping well, eating well, moving more, and keeping in touch with your social support network. Cutting down on caffeine and alcohol might be something to consider if you are feeling particularly anxious, and of course ask for help from your GP if you notice a significant dip in your mental health.
Finally, one important goal in the next few months will be to show compassion towards ourselves and others. We will not always get it right or be able to do it all as we renegotiate life post-lockdown, so aiming to do our best and forgiving our inevitable mistakes will be important for remaining positive. We should acknowledge that just as the transition into lockdown last year was unsettling and difficult, so too this transition back to normality might be a somewhat daunting prospect. We’ve all been through one heck of a year and showing ourselves a little kindness could go a long way to alleviating some of those lockdown-lifting anxieties.