The government is expected to announce phase two of our lockdown exit strategy in the coming days. But if the thought of life beginning to return to a “new normal” makes you feel anxious, you are not alone – and help is at hand.
We’ve been in lockdown since 23 March, and over the last nine and a half weeks, our lives have become almost unrecognisable.
In our efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus, we’ve stayed at home, avoided seeing our friends and family and steered clear of public transport. Life as we know it has been put on hold – bars and restaurants are closed, hairdressers and nail salons can’t operate and weddings, parties and holidays are all cancelled.
While it has been incredibly difficult to adjust to this “new normal”, there has also been a lot of uncertainty around when the measures will be lifted, and how. The UK entered phase one of our lockdown exit strategy two weeks ago, meaning we are now able to leave our houses and exercise outside as many times as we wish, as well as meet up with one person from outside of our household, as long as we maintain social distancing.
Boris Johnson is now expected to announce that we can enter phase two in the coming days, as long as it is safe to do so. This could see changes including some non-essential shops reopening, as well as schools.
In a few more weeks, we could see bars, restaurants and cinemas welcoming customers once again, and travel restrictions lifting. We could be returning to socially distanced offices, and visiting friends and family in groups.
Essentially, lockdown will one day end, leaving us able to return to a “new normal” way of living. And while the prospect of having the freedom to socialise, work and travel as we once did can be exciting, it might also be a source of anxiety for some.
“The thought of returning to normal life after coronavirus can be incredibly anxiety-provoking for people,” says Dr Becky Spelman, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic. “People will already have had small experiences of feeling anxious in public, such as when others have gotten too close to them, so the thought of going back to normal life where we’re in extremely close proximity to other people could definitely trigger anxiety.
“We all know that it’s going to be risky doing things such as going on public transport, but some people will be unable to avoid these types of situations. Others might go into these situations, such as visiting a bar, thinking they will be fine, but then be overcome with anxiety when they end up in those situations, based on what they’ve had to endure during the pandemic.”
If you’re starting to worry about what life will be like once the lockdown restrictions ease, or you’re starting to feel anxious at the thought of more restrictions being lifted, you are not alone. This feeling is called anticipatory anxiety, which is a symptom described by Anxiety UK as “when a person experiences increased levels of anxiety by thinking about an event or situation in the future”.
“Anxiety can be extremely draining for people as it can last for months prior to an event,” the Anxiety UK description adds. “The worries people experience specifically focus on what they think might happen, often with catastrophic predictions about an event. The nature of negative predictions about the event will be the difference between an anxiety level that is incapacitating or merely uncomfortable.”
Dr Spelman believes that anticipatory anxiety could be experienced by some of us as we consider our post-lockdown lives.
“A lot of people might start to anticipate the anxiety they might experience going into ‘normal’ life, and some will prefer to stay in some stage of lockdown for quite some period of time,” she says. “While people do want their freedom and they want to start socialising and seeing their friends, a lot of people will start to feel that it is safer to try and continue to avoid certain things for a period of time.”
This is also reflected in recent studies into how people feel about lockdown, with a recent poll from Ipsos MORI finding that 61% of Brits would feel uncomfortable going to restaurants and bars and using public transport while 67% would feel “uncomfortable” attending large public gatherings, such as music festivals, in comparison to how they felt before lockdown. Similarly, a new report from Opinium found that only one in five of us currently wants pubs, restaurants and schools to reopen.
“The thoughts about the future and what the future holds can be completely overwhelming for people and people will deal with this in different ways,” adds Dr Spelman. “Some people will obsess over it and their thoughts will be really dominated by worries about the future. Other people will want to put this completely out of their minds and try not to think about what the future holds whatsoever, in order to try and avoid feeling anxious.”
So what can we do if we find ourselves experiencing anticipatory anxiety?
“If you find that your thoughts are completely overloaded with anticipation over what the future brings and you end up feeling very anxious, it might be worth trying some cognitive techniques,” says Dr Spelman. She suggests trying mindfulness, or challenging some of the beliefs we might be worrying about.
She also points to the two-minute rule, which could be helpful for some.
“Allowing yourself to worry for two minutes, and realising that anything over those two minutes is not productive, is a good rule to have,” she explains. “This means you can actually start to focus your thoughts on something else or change the activity you’re doing in order to focus on something more helpful.”
If you do find yourself worrying or feeling anxious, remember that it is not your fault.
“Don’t give yourself a hard time about feeling anxious – it’s pretty normal given the circumstances that we’re living under,” Dr Spelman says. “It’s quite normal for most people to be experiencing some sort of anxiety right now and for some people that can become unmanageable.
“Speak to friends about your anxiety, be transparent and open and seek support where you can. For some people that might be seeing a therapist, while for other people that might just be reaching out to supportive friends and family members to be able to help get yourself in a better mindset.”