As lockdown eases, it’s no surprise that many of us are feeling nervous about spending time surrounded by people again.
A lot has changed since the UK first went into lockdown almost 100 days ago.
At first, most of us would have relished the opportunity to be able to take a trip to the pub or have a face-to-face conversation with our friends. But now, as pubs, restaurants, hotels and cinemas prepare to reopen on 4 July, many of us are feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in a room full of people – no matter how many safety measures and social distancing rules are put in place.
If you’re one of the people feeling anxious about the easing of lockdown on 4 July, it’s important to remember you’re not alone – in fact, feeling anxious about the prospect of being around people is a totally normal reaction to the current situation, Michelle Scott, psychotherapist at the TRC Group, tells Stylist.
“We have experienced a collective trauma and therefore fear is a very prominent part of our psyche at the moment,” she explains. “Quite understandably, we have been left feeling afraid of the world outside of lockdown (and of other people).”
According to Scott, our fear of people and the outside world could stem from the uncertainty of the ‘new normal’ we’re facing, leaving us feeling like everything is out of our control.
“We are now emerging into a world which is completely different from our previous lifestyle: there are new threats in our surroundings and new rules of behaviour which have not been properly established,” she says.
“To an extent we have all become rather institutionalized. We have been acting in a rigid and controlled way, and while that has been useful to keep us safe, we now have to adapt to a more open lifestyle and a whole new set of circumstances. A key problem we’re facing is that we can’t control other people – there is huge uncertainty and the world may feel rather out of control.”
The unique situation all of us are facing right now means that people who haven’t experienced anxiety before may find themselves struggling for the first time. Indeed, although it may feel frustrating to be scared of such a seemingly “small” thing such as going to a restaurant or pub, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s completely normal to feel anxious, especially when the virus is still present in society.
Because every mind is different, there’s no one ‘plan of action’ to take if you’re feeling anxious about being near people as lockdown eases. In fact, Scott says, if you’re feeling particularly anxious about seeing people again, it’s OK to avoid seeing people for a bit longer.
“It is up to the individual to decide what they feel is appropriate now,” she says. “We shouldn’t feel pressured to go into a social environment with lots of people around us unless we are comfortable to do that. Everyone should go at their own pace.”
She continues: “If friends are embracing the opportunity to go out shopping, go to the beach or go to a pub as soon as they are open, that doesn’t mean we should too. Remember that the way you think and feel about this is perfectly valid.”
Some people will be rightly concerned that putting something off – like seeing your friends or going to a restaurant – because of anxiety, is only going to make the fear worse in the long run, but that isn’t necessarily case: “If you want to take things slowly, that’s absolutely OK,” Scott says.
“Setting your own healthy boundaries is always a good strategy for life and relationships. Sometimes that does involve being firm with yourself. Ask yourself the question ‘am I letting fear lead me?’. Allowing that isn’t always healthy, so work on that fear with a positive and engaged frame of mind.”
To challenge your fear and identify whether you’re feeling “inappropriately fearful,” Scott recommends challenging your thoughts: “Our survival brain makes a link that certain situations are dangerous and threatening and therefore tells us that we should avoid those situations. If we had a car accident, for example, we might want to avoid getting in a car again. But it’s not true that all cars have accidents, and similarly it’s not true that all social situations are a source of Covid-19 infection.”
If you’re feeling ready to go out to a restaurant or pub, but still feel worried about the prospect of being around people again, there are a number of steps you can take to ease your anxiety and/or make the process easier for you.
Alongside ‘interrogating’ your fear in the way described above and seeking support from friends and family members, Scott recommends identifying an ‘initial step’ you can take to boost your confidence and alleviate some of the initial anxiety you might be feeling.
“Walking and exercising outdoors can be a good first step to feeling safe with other people around you,” she says. “If you have already been exercising outdoors in recent weeks, take a different route or exercise in a new area and recognise that you still feel safe and are coping well.
“If we have become stuck in a rut, we need to free ourselves from default patterns of thinking and behaving – novel experiences are healthy, because they give us perspective.”
She continues: “Gradually open yourself up to new experiences that feel safe for you. Give yourself permission to stick to your own safe boundaries. You can call ahead to ask what measures the pub is taking to keep its customers safe if that is what you need. You are allowed to ask other people to please respect your space.
“It may be a case of taking very gradual steps and setting yourself realistic goals. Notice the positive changes as you overcome your anxiety. Don’t move on to the next step until you have mastered the current one. Reward yourself along the way as you make positive changes. Notice the benefits you gain from expanding your comfort zone.”
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that everyone will have different things they are and aren’t comfortable with as we ease out of lockdown – and we shouldn’t feel pressured to do things just because everyone is. It’s OK to set boundaries and say no to things you feel uneasy about – after all, we’re all doing what we need to do to get through this.