How To Deal With "Re-Entry" Anxiety As Lockdown Eases, According To Experts

It's totally normal to feel nervous.

by Sophie McEvoy
Originally Published: 

On Feb. 22, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a roadmap for England to ease lockdown restrictions, including a four-step plan that aims to have restrictions lifted by June 21. While this is great news to many, for some it's a little daunting. The ongoing vaccination rollout has provided some semblance of hope, but even then the jab isn’t guaranteed to stop the spread of the virus. And as the new "normal" of staying home, controlling the virus, and saving lives has become ingrained in our consciousness for over a year now, dealing with re-entry anxiety as lockdown eases has started to become an issue for many across the UK.

Data collected by market research company Ipsos Mori in early January suggested that six in 10 (60%) Brits said “they are finding it harder to stay positive day-to-day compared with before the virus,” with only 6% of Brits saying they find things easier. And after the total UK death count surpassing 150,000 mark in recent months, it’s not surprising that people are struggling to feel hopeful.

For young people, it’s even harder. According to a survey conducted by mental health charity Young Minds, 67% of over 2,000 respondents believed that the pandemic will have long-term negative effects on their mental health.

Both issues are something Neil Shah, founder and chief de-stressing officer at the Stress Management Society has seen in his work. “People have really struggled and had very little in the way of support or coping mechanisms to be able to navigate life in lockdown,” he tells Bustle, which is made worse by the fact that “we don’t know what’s going to happen next”. Moreover, the uncertainty surrounding the lifting of restrictions, and what that means for the future of the UK's COVID response, makes things feel even more worrying.

What Is “Re-Entry” Anxiety?

Describing the effects of "re-entry anxiety," consultant psychologist Marc Hekster told The Independent: "It's the fear of the unknown and the loss of this period of safety created by the enforced lockdown into our homes." He continued: "Lockdown has created an artificial sense of security about the world. We have been protected from the virus, and perhaps also protected from complicated family circumstances, family conflicts, and other external issues."

This anxiety is exacerbated by the fact that things you used do to de-stress are now sources of worry. As Shah explains, going out to see friends for a meal or drinks, or going on holiday have been restricted for so long that now many are apprehensive to go back to the old “normal”.

However, psychotherapist and director of Key For Change Keeley Taverner tells me that this uncertainty could be harnessed as a good thing. “Embracing uncertainty can free us up to channel our energy into what we can control within our sphere of influence, rather than turning our attention to situations beyond our control,” she explains.

How Can You Combat “Re-Entry” Anxiety?

So, if you're worried about experiencing re-entry anxiety, what can you do to address it? Psychologist and cognitive behaviour therapist Vickie Norris, who specialises in anxiety, tells me that while it's going to be "challenging to face other people in the outside world", there are plenty of coping mechanisms to try. Here are some tips from Norris, plus advice from other experts that may help to ease anxiety as restrictions lift.

1. Take it steady, don't take too much on too soon. Whether that's going back to work or venturing out to non-essential shops, taking it one step at a time is better than overwhelming yourself all at once.

Taverner advises: “Go slowly, set small goals, and take tiny steps to get out of your comfort zone.” She highlights that it’s important to “come out of lockdown at a pace that works for you”. And recommends that you “buddy up with someone who will support you” to help with the process.

2. Work on building yourself up in stages progressively, taking on greater challenges to expose yourself to others, and the outside world. For example, make the transition from popping out to your local coffee shop for five minutes to meeting up with friends for half an hour.

3. Don't rely on a crutch such as alcohol — this might feel like it will help in the short-term, but longer-term it could well backfire. Invest in your mental health, and the support of others, whether that's continuing with nightly catch-up calls with family and friends, or keeping up your relaxing meditation routine.

4. Challenge any negative thoughts you may have about the situations you're planning to be in. It's hard not to think of threats surrounding the virus, but as long as you adhere to current social distancing and hygiene rules, give yourself a break, and try to think more positively.

Christi-an Slomka, community manager at Calm, also recommends to track your changes in mood by keeping a daily journal. “Notice potential patterns, and triggers that may be adding to your feelings of anxiety, and perhaps you can take a time out,” Slomka advises, on dealing with these feelings when they arise.

5. Give yourself a reward to look forward to afterwards. Whether that's a restorative nap, or sitting down to a good TV show, having something to look forward to when you get home will help to relieve stress and tension while you're out and about in the world.

6. Prioritise your physical, and mental health. Shah notes that “it’s good to socialise, it’s good for you to be around other human beings.” So, soak up those benefits, and focus on what you can control. “You can control your attitude, your behaviour, and how you choose to show up, how you’re going to look after yourself. It’s our responsibility to take care of our health.”

Of course, if your anxiety becomes overwhelming, it could be worth getting in touch with your GP or seeking professional help. Mind UK has a helpline that is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday to Friday (except bank holidays) to support anyone struggling with their mental health.

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