Mental Health

Post-lockdown anxiety: “Am I the only one feeling overwhelmed by the idea of going ‘back to normal’?”

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Lauren Geall
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A woman scrolling through the news nervous about lockdown restrictions easing and life going back to normal

After so long spent staying at home and living under lockdown restrictions, the prospect of getting back to ‘normal’ from 19 July can feel a little overwhelming.

It’s official: from 19 July, nearly all coronavirus-related restrictions in England will come to an end. While we’re still being encouraged to act responsibly to curb the spread of the virus (in a press conference yesterday, Boris Johnson urged people not to be “demob happy” and think this move marks “the end of Covid”), for the most part, this latest move marks a return to some kind of ‘normal’.

Among the restrictions set to be lifted later this month are the “one metre-plus” social distancing guidelines (except in specific places such as airports), limits on social contact indoors and capacity caps on large-scale events. All remaining businesses, such as nightclubs, will also be allowed to re-open.

For many – especially those who have had their livelihoods affected by the restrictions – the prime minister’s latest announcement comes as a welcome surprise. And while I can understand this – and also share in the joy that the vaccine rollout is working – I also can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the prospect of getting back to ‘normal’ life. 

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You see, while I know lockdown isn’t a good thing – especially in terms of the impact it’s had on my and many others’ mental health – the idea of straying from the weird ‘new normal’ I’ve created over the last year also seems incredibly overwhelming.

For almost 12 months, staying home has been the norm. Sure, I’ve got out and about more as restrictions have eased over the last couple of months, but my pandemic life has been vastly different from the bustling life I used to live in ‘the time before’.

The idea of getting back to that (going into the office, seeing friends in crowded bars and commuting on the Tube) feels nearly impossible, not only because it sounds bloody exhausting, but because currently, even going for food at a restaurant feels like a big deal.

It feels weird to admit that something as simple as eating food outside my home has become such an event for me, but as someone who has always suffered with anxiety, I guess it’s hardly surprising after so long spent living under restrictions. 

In a weird way, the coronavirus restrictions have become a kind of comfort zone – at a time when so much has been going on, it’s been almost comforting, if not less emotionally taxing, to relinquish some control over my life.

When I shared how I’ve been feeling, I was relieved to know I’m not the only one who is scared of the challenges that might come with getting back to ‘normal’ life. I spoke to Katy, who shares my anxiety about being around people again. She says she’s worried about the pressure to get back to her ‘usual self’ after so long simply trying to survive.

A woman looking out her window during lockdown
Dealing with lockdown hasn't been easy, but going 'back to normal' won't be, either.

“I know my anxiety is so irrational,” she tells me, “but I just feel so worried that while everyone else has been practising self-care and doing face masks and exercising (and will therefore emerge from lockdown looking incredible and glorious), I’ve had a hard time even brushing my hair, felt very lethargic, and become addicted to Deliveroo!

“It’s double-whammy anxiety – not only am I nervous about seeing people again but also about the pressure to go out and be effervescent and witty with mates and look immaculate at the same time. It just feels very daunting.” 

I also spoke to Kayleigh, who says imagining how much emotional and physical energy it will take to get back to ‘normal’ is clouding her relief at lockdown ending.

“While I hate the fact that I can’t see my family and friends in lockdown, I have to admit that the thought of everything suddenly clicking back to normal is making me more than a little nervous,” she explains. “I have never been very good in crowds, often suffered panic attacks on the busy London commute and, because I’ve got a nasty habit of people-pleasing and saying yes to every invite thrown my way, would often end my weeks feeling exhausted and thoroughly burnt out.”

She adds: “I don’t know how to switch back to my old life – not without a pretty hefty adjustment period, anyway.” 

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Although I was afraid to place a downer on the good news of restrictions lifting, I’m relieved to know I’m not the only one whose feelings remain mixed. If anything I think it shows that, while it’s OK to be happy for those people who have struggled with lockdown and want to get back to normal, at the same time, it’s also OK to acknowledge that this next chapter won’t be plain sailing for us all.

I know it’s a cliché, but we have to remember that this is an experience that no one has ever faced before – and talking about how we’re feeling is a great way to remind each other that we’re all in this together, no matter how isolated our emotions might make us feel. 

How to cope with post-lockdown anxiety if you’re feeling uneasy about restrictions lifting on 19 July 

A woman holding her chest
The idea of getting back to 'normal' post-lockdown can seem overwhelming.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of jumping back into your pre-lockdown life, there are some steps you can take to look after your mental health and alleviate some of that anxiety. Here, Dr Alexandra Oliver, medical director for Bupa Health Clinics, shares her advice for looking after yourself over the next couple of months.

Treat yourself with kindness

“If you’re feeling anxious, take things slowly and be kind to yourself,” Dr Oliver says. “It can be overwhelming as restrictions ease and it’s understandable to feel anxious. Take things at a pace you’re comfortable with and start slowly.

“If you’re not ready for big crowds, nightclubs or concerts, start by going out for a meal with friends and build it up. Remember too that alcohol can have a negative impact on your mental health, so if you’re worried, consider sticking to soft drinks.”

Respect other people

“Everyone is dealing with the easing of restrictions in their own way and while most people are excited, others may feel anxious about readjusting to how life was before lockdown,” Dr Oliver explains. “Be mindful of other people and remember that they may be feeling more anxious or cautious than you feel.

“Don’t take offence if it looks as though someone is trying to avoid you; instead be kind and considerate. It’s nothing personal.” 

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Speak up

“Although this may be obvious, many people struggle to speak about their feelings, especially when it comes to their mental health,” Dr Oliver says. “If you’re anxious about returning to the office, speaking to your line manager about your concerns can help. This may be about overcrowding on the train or worries about a busy office; however, they’ll be able to reassure you and help find ways to manage your anxiety.

“If you’re anxious about being out with friends in a big crowd, talk to them about this and work out together what you can do to help reduce these feelings. It’s likely they’ll be feeling a similar way so there is no need to feel ashamed or embarrassed about speaking up.”

Be prepared

“Particularly for those anxious about returning to work, getting into a routine can help to reduce feelings of anxiety,” Dr Oliver explains. “Start by going to bed and getting up at a similar time as you would on a normal workday, and try to finish at a similar time. Remember you’re not used to commuting or working in the office so be gentle with yourself on your first few days back.

“For those experiencing social anxiety, again, being prepared can help reduce these feelings. If you need to travel on public transport, make sure you’ve planned your route and know how long the journey will take. Also, make sure you check out your venue online before you go. This can help you to understand their set-up and what to expect when you arrive.”

Seek help and advice

“If you’re struggling with anxiety, speak to a GP who’ll be able to help you with ways you can manage it,” Dr Oliver recommends. “Organisations like Mind, the NHS and Bupa all have a wealth of advice freely available online, while charities like the Samaritans and CALM both have phone lines for people needing urgent support.” 

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org.

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This article was originally published on 1 April 2021, and has since been updated throughout.

Images: Getty

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.