Now we are out of lockdown, is continued anxiety a thing?

At the core of returning to a more social life, there may linger a sense of persistent anxiety for some. This may take the form of not wanting to get too close to other people, a lingering sense of dread, being easily distracted, poor sleep, or other other physiological signs. 

We may even experience a sense of a wider sense of risk-aversion in the short term; I can’t remember the number of times we said to the kids during lockdown, “Please don’t do that”, (mutters under breath, really don’t want to be going to ED right now). We may find ourselves avoiding places, activities or situations, or worrying excessively about issues outside our control. 

Anxiety is a normal human emotion. Most people experience some anxiety when facing a new, unknown situation, a stressful event happens or something goes wrong in their life. However, some people find themselves worrying or feeling anxious at some stage in their lives. At any one time, 15% of the population will be affected.

There’s some indication that at least the short term as we emerge out of lockdown, a higher proportion of people may experience anxious feelings. But it’s important to remember that experiencing some anxiety is normal, but it’s only when it is so strong that it interferes with you being able to carry out your normal day-to-day life, that it is considered to be an anxiety disorder.

Amongst other factors, underlying all this is a need for certainty that isn’t being met, and is unlikely to be met for some time. Underlying this need for uncertainty is a belief that more information will help to relieve anxiety and worry. But many outcomes in life are unpredictable, or can’t be predicted with absolute certainty. Assuming that certainty is possible and demanding that they obtain certainty keeps anxiety going.

So why might anxiety persist post-lockdown?

Don’t forget, we are being asked to pivot from a mindset of acting like we have the coronavirus and avoiding all unnecessary contact to being able to be near people again, albeit with physical distancing measures still in place. Children and younger adults may need to guidance as to how to behave, but also dealing with the emotions it may raise for them; feeling a sense of psychological danger. And we know that for the best learning to take place, yes; we need structure and predictability, but we also need to feel psychologically safe, so that our cognitive space isn’t taken up with thoughts of worry, and that we aren’t too caught up in the emotional labour and hard work of managing these silent emotions ourselves. 

We are moving from Levels 3 and 4 which did bring a sense of protection and security for some who suffer from anxiety, as well as many in the wider population. Entering back into society in Level 2 may also bring us face to face with the social and economic consequences in ways that we may not have been in touch with in real ways thus far: job losses, business closures or furloughs, and this may bring up feelings of shame, loss and guilt. 

Its important to remember that we have a lot to process right now. Communications are also in the process of being decentralised. Instead of watching the latest at the 1pm press conference, directly from Dr Bloomfield, or one of the other public servants, and from the Prime Minister, we are now in a phase where we are receiving messages about what people are doing and how you need to behave from schools, work, councils, or commercial organisations we may have given our emails to, like cafes, supermarkets, museums. Everyone right now is receiving an information deluge. Now, for some people, they like more information – it settles them. For others, they prefer to be told directly and from one source what they need to do – they don’t necessarily even want to know why. And there’s a range of preferences for information amount and delivery in between. 

We are moving from a situation where we perhaps had a widely shared and convergent mental model of what was happening and how we should respond, as this information was mainly delivered through one channel, and was consistent and largely coherent.. However, as we move to a different phase, these mental models about what we should and could be doing become more contested, more divergent. And if we are looking for increased certainty in these communications, it’s unlikely we are going to find it.

The risk is that as these comms are decentralised, we may get the same information over and over again – or perhaps its the same information that is a bit different. This creates doubt and does not meet that need for certainty. And some things might get overlooked completely – and when we search for some piece of information we need and find that no-one has said anything out it, again, this can erode our sense of psychological safety.

It’s important to remember that for most people, that this low-grade and possibly persistent anxiety will most likely not interfere with their lives, and it will most likely fade away and flare up only when we go through another concerning period, such as if cases start rising again. It’s likely we will start to normalise some of the behaviours that we have been encouraged to perform, like washing hands more often, and distancing too. These will become a way of life for the foreseeable future, and will have consequences for interactions and relationships that are hard to project right now. 

But we also need to talk about how to manage this. For example, when we first start emerging out into social spaces, like school or the work place, there might be a level of comfort you need to feel safe. It’s important that schools and workplaces respect this and help people to manage safe interactions – not just infection safe, but psychologically safe. This means that people will be able to go at their own pace, and it will likely add another dimension to getting back to social life. 

In terms of schools, I have some sympathy for the view that children need the structure of getting on its school. But I also think that creating a sense of psychological safety is also going to be paramount if the learning opportunities that the schooling system is going to try to create are going to be effectively taken up.

Also, parents needs to understand what they need to do at the school gate etc in order to keep them safe. We got a very comprehensive email from our oldest daughters’ school yesterday, flagging the things we need to make arrangements for in order to manage that. I’m sure it won’t be the last email. 

We may be rusty or clunky with our social skills – or we may find that our needs may have changed in a more lasting way. We don’t really know yet. We need to keep observing, experiencing, and understanding that we have a diversity of emerging needs that won’t be fully apparent just yet.

Emergent challenges such as possible worries in about 5-14 days times where we start to see sniffles / respiratory infections in children (as they start to mix more feely again, despite schools best efforts at physical distancing), and then these spreading to their other family members. Its how we prepare and react to this that becomes important. Its probably going to be impractical to test everyone all at the same times, but it is important that if you are sick that you stay at home. This helps everyone feel not only physically safe, but psychologically safe too. And this is going to continue for some time. 

What can we do? 

The good news is that there is way out of this cycle of looking for certainty, and it not being enough to allay your anxieties.. Instead of trying to control things or block out your thoughts and feelings, you can learn how to experience them in a manageable way.

Learning about anxiety can help you manage it. Anxiety is a normal human emotion when faced with threat. However, for some people, lots of everyday things begin to feel like a threat and anxiety begins to limit your day-to-day life. Two tendencies can often play a role in this:

  • you overestimate how likely it is that something bad will happen to you 

  • you underestimate your ability to cope

Here’s some tips to help you get some awareness of how your worries and anxiety might be driving your behaviour, so you can start to take action to feel more in charge, even if you can’t get absolute certainty in your life right now. 

  • Get to know your anxiety. Keep a diary of when it’s at it’s best – and worst. Find the patterns and plan your week – or day – to proactively manage your anxiety.

  • Know that everyone experiences anxiety. It is a normal human response to situations that may include some kind of threat, real or perceived. It can help you to prepare well for big events and to take care in situations that objectively are risky. So, it’s important to expect and learn to tolerate some anxiety. However, it’s also important to recognise when your anxiety has become unhelpful and take action to counter it. Like washing your hands and keeping physically distant

  • Learn from others. Talking with others who also experience anxiety – or are going through something similar – can help you feel less alone. There are online forums to connect with others.

  • Taking small steps to face what you are worried you won’t be able to cope with is called graded exposure. Graded exposure helps you slowly build your confidence in your ability to cope with the things you have been avoiding.

When you face a fear by doing the thing you’ve been avoiding, your fight or flight response will be triggered. This is when your brain releases certain hormones into your body so you are ready to fight off or run away from a real threat. It also gets triggered when you feel anxious about things that aren’t a real threat. 

If you stay long enough in the situation you are worried about, your fight or flight response – and therefore your anxiety – goes down. If you keep doing it a bit more or staying a bit longer each time, your anxiety still rises at the start each time, but not as much as the time before. Also, you usually find that your fear was unfounded, which is an empowering experience.

When you do the thing that worries you again and again, your anxiety goes away faster each time. Eventually, you find that you can do much more than before without being worried about it.

Finally, be kind to yourself. Remember that you are not your anxiety. You are not weak. You are not inferior.  Take small acts of bravery. Avoiding what makes you anxious provides some relief in the short term, but can make you more anxious in the long term. Try approaching something that makes you anxious – even in a small way. The way through anxiety is by learning that what you fear isn’t likely to happen – and if it does, you’ll be able to cope with it.

Go well into Level 2, New Zealand. Wash your hands, and practice appropriate physical distancing. We’ll be here for a while yet. 

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