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Return anxiety: why lockdown easing is filling you with dread and how to handle it

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Lauren Geall
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People across the country are heading back to work as the lockdown restrictions are lifted. Stylist explores why so many of us are dreading the return to ‘normal’ life.

In the days following the start of the coronavirus lockdown on 23 March, most of us would have done anything to return to normal. We dreamt about pub gardens and visits to Pret on a lunchbreak became our idea of heaven. “We never realised how good we had it,” we’d say as we enjoyed the novelty of Zoom drinks and virtual pub quizzes. “I can’t wait until this is all over”.

Seven weeks later, a lot has changed. Today (13 May) we’re seeing the first signs of “normality” return to our streets, as some people begin to go back to work and restrictions on exercise are lifted. It’ll probably be a while before we get pubs back, but for the first time in ages, there’s an attempt to restore some of our pre-pandemic life.

We should, on the face of it, be elated. Just seven weeks ago we were itching to get back to normal life. But now, instead of an all-encompassing desire to “get on with things,” there’s a hesitation in many people’s steps: our lockdown fantasies have almost been realised, and suddenly it fills us with dread.

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Whether you feel anxious about returning to work, sending your children back to school or simply leaving the house for the first time in weeks, you’re not alone.

“Coming out of lockdown will be a big change for most people, as the unusual circumstances we’ve found ourselves in have become a new normal,” explains Neuro Linguistic Programming coach Rebecca Lockwood. “When these restrictions are lifted it will create a big change in most people’s lives, relationships and routines.”

Lockwood explains that this “return anxiety” we’re all experiencing is actually a completely normal response to change – as humans, we like to know what’s going to happen next and have an established routine, so it’s only natural that we’re finding it hard to revamp our lives again.

A woman looking out her window
Despite dreaming about returning to normal life less than two months ago, many of us are now struggling with the idea.

“When we find ourselves in our comfort zones most people like to stay there as it’s seen as a safe place to stay,” she adds. “When we start to move out of our comfort zones it causes feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and overwhelm. This is what we all experienced at the beginning of lockdown, and now we will be experiencing the reverse effect when we come out of lockdown.”

Dominique Antiglio, an expert in sophrology (a relaxation technique used to reduce stress and anxiety) at the BeSophro clinic, also explains that the resistance some people feel to return to normal life can leave them feeling isolated in their anxiety.

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“We’re experiencing a form of stress associated with the fear of being unable, or not wanting to re-adapt to previously established routines and environments i.e. going back to ‘normal’,” she explains. “The impending change and disruption in which we are forced to adapt to the environment (but where new rules apply and previous conventions no longer seem to work or feel relevant) can exacerbate isolation and loneliness.

“This feeling of ‘not belonging’ or being unable to adapt quickly enough can impact our sense of identity and mental health.

For Lockwood, coping with return anxiety is about taking things at our own pace and showing ourselves a bit of compassion.

A woman looking out her window
Speaking to others about how you're feeling is a great way to relieve some of your anxiety.

“Check in with yourself and how you’re feeling,” she recommends. “Understand that most of the world will also be feeling the same right now, and it’s OK.”

On top of this, she recommends taking the time to talk to others about how you’re feeling, rather than brushing it under the rug and pretending those emotions don’t exist.

Antiglio agrees that connecting with others (virtually, for the time being) can be a great way to seek support during this challenging time.

“Social interaction (virtually) and support, managing expectations, and self-care are examples of things that can be implemented to help keep the anxiety in check,” she explains.

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However you’re feeling at the moment, it’s important to remind yourself that your emotions are completely valid. We are in the middle of a situation none of us have ever dealt with before, and it’s understandable to feel unsure about going back to work or returning to some semblance of ‘normal’.

If you’re worried about returning to work, and want to find out more about what workplaces should be open and what guidelines employers are legally required to follow to keep you safe, you can check out the government’s ‘Covid-19 secure’ working guidelines here. 

Coping with anxiety

If you’re dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to understand that this is a completely normal response to the current situation. However, if you’re looking for a way to alleviate some of those feelings, here’s three articles that might help.

For more information on anxiety, including what it is and how to cope, you can check out NHS Every Mind Matters or visit the Mind website.

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