With Sydneysiders flooding into pubs, cafes, and restaurants on Monday morning, and Melbournians poised for the same kind of exodus back into a ‘normal’ life, there is a glympse of what the future might look like. This light at the end of the tunnel, for the most part, is met with relief and exitement but for some of us, the very idea of returning back to life as we knew it is a source of distress.
It seems paradoxical at first glance but upon deeper inspection, it is actually quite natural. With anxious and depressive symptoms forming a majority of the mental health problems, the pendulum has effectively swung from the lockdown malaise more commonly characterised as the ‘lockdown blues’ to a fear of the unknown culminating in post-lockdown anxiety or re-entry anxiety. We’ve effectively traded (or for Melbournians, will be) one for another.
Why now? As humans, we tend to feel the most comfortable when we know what is expected of us, to know the rules of the game, and to accurately predict ~within reason~ what may happen to us as we engage with the world. If you feel abit anxious about opening up, I’m here to tell you that there is nothing defective or abnormal about this. Your body is doing exactly what it’s meant to. Most of us have been living under the fear of a threat, and some of us have been personally impacted by that threat. That threat – perceived or otherwise carries with it a host of neurobiological consequences that come with a body that is in a perpetual fight-flight-freeze state. Here are a few things to consider as you embark on your newfound freedom!
1. Take it slow
Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Take water, for example – small doses quenches one’s thirst but too much is toxic to the human body. The same logic applies to the post lockdown world. Too many things all at once leaves us stretched thin, under resourced, and ultimately overwhelmed. This is particularly important because part of the fear that makes up the re-entry anxiety is grounded in the idea that it is too much. More often than not, the anxious thoughts that take form within our minds are distortions – castastrophizations of a risk or an extreme and narrow interpretation of an event. By behaving in a way that increases the likelihood of these catastrophizations, we run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy thereby reinforcing the distorted anxious thoughts.
Practically, it might mean saying no to that third coffee catch up on a Saturday or scheduling your events in a way that provides you with the necessary rest and downtime. In short, set clear boundaries, spread out your events, and give your mind and body the time to properly adjust to the new normal.
2. Speak to someone you trust
Remember that check-in buddy or bubble buddy that you were supposed to have? They’re now your post-lockdown buddy. Talk to your buddy about how you may, together, engage the new world. Plan out how you may best conquer the list of to-do activities and to-visit places that you’ve been discussing together. Breaking down big goals into managable chunks and enlisting the support of people you trust are time-tested and science-backed ways to make something less overwhelming and by extension, more doable.
Take this one step further and talk to your psychologist about how you may best engage with the world. Psychologists, as experts in human behaviour and a key player in your mental health team, have a broader picture of your personality and the ways in which your destructive tendancies may manifest. Talk out some of the worst-case scenarios in a safe and constructive place so that you have a blueprint for action as well as a plan to course-correct, should the need arise.
3. Revise your self-care plan
Living in lockdown means having a restricted amount of time outside. As we emerge out of lockdown, the opposite is true. It’s well known that self-care tends to decline when under periods of extreme stress, notably with sleep, exercise, and mental health care taking a hit. But did you know that the inverse is also true? Drawing on the experience of cycling as an analogy, when we’re under extreme stress, life feels like an uphill ride in a fight against time – stopping and taking time for self-care seems counterintuitive on several levels. In periods of excitement the bycicle ride resembles more of a downhill experience as the feelings of elation and euphoria take hold. The danger here is one of going too fast too quickly at a speed where we are unable to hit the brakes and a crash ensues.
General self-care condiderations still apply. Things like sleep, exercise, and nutrition form the foundational blocks but on a behavioural and psychological level, some tweaks need to be adjusted. For example, instead of prioritising exercise time during lockdown, the emphasis should be shifted onto down-time to recharge. The amount of down-time you need will be specific to your temperament – where you fall on the introversion/extroversion dimension of personality, among other things. Take an experimental approach and see what works for you.
Feeling like you need something extra? The new world offers an opportunity for you to make an addition to your self care routine by adding mindfulness and meditation. Though many variations exist, the Yoga Nidra school offers some impressive scientifically validated benefits including a reduction of depressive and anxious symptoms.