Why it’s totally normal to have ‘return-anxiety’ about life post-COVID

Why it’s totally normal to have ‘return-anxiety’ about life post-COVID

Psychologists Nancy Sokarno and Jacqui Manning break down why some people are worried about easing restrictions and what our return-to-normal anxiety really means.

Eight weeks ago, life as we knew it changed. As a result of the growing COVID-19 pandemic, Australia was forced into lockdown, which led to the closure of restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, retail stores and outdoor spaces across the country. Thousands of Aussies began working from home, and nobody was allowed to leave their home except for ‘essential travel’.

Back then, we couldn’t wait for the curve to flatten and to return to ‘normal’ – to see friends whenever we wanted (not via Zoom), go to spin class and eat brunch at our favourite café. So why is it that now rates of COVID-19 have slowed and restrictions are beginning to ease, some of us are anxious about returning to our old way of life?

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Fear of the unknown

“Anytime we transition into a new stage there’ll always be a sense of apprehension or anxiety around the unpredictability of what’s to come,” explains Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno.

While eight weeks ago everyone was finding it hard to adjust to life in lockdown, eventually we settled into a new ‘normal’, and with restrictions lifting, our new way of life is under threat.

“We’ve finally gotten into the groove of this different way of living and now as restrictions ease, we have to think about transitioning back into our normal life – but what does that look like?” Sokarno adds.

Another factor that might be playing on your anxiety is the fact that COVID-19 hasn’t gone away. Although we’re now allowed to visit friends and dine in at local restaurants, the virus is still here. New cases are being recorded and we don’t have a vaccine, and this can cause people to panic at the thought of returning to risky locations (like offices and public transport).

“There’s still an overarching fear of contracting the virus,” says Sokarno. “A lot of people are struggling to know how much to let go and how cautious to be, and I think people are finding it hard to find what works for them in terms of staying safe both physically and mentally.”

While up until this point we’ve been able to control who we see and where we go, restrictions lifting means that certainty has been taken away. It’s impossible to know where people have been and if they’re being as careful as you, so it’s only natural to worry about your health and the health of your family.

Losing the silver linings of lockdown

According to resident b+s psychologist Jacqui Manning, some people may be anxious about returning to their pre-coronavirus routines because they were unhappy with their lifestyle.

“I think prior to the COVID-19 shutdown our world wasn’t normal,” says Manning. “We thrived on being toxically busy all the time. Life was out of balance so some people have been relishing the forced break, the time to breathe and to not feel the pressure of being productive. Because of this, the idea of returning to that toxically busy world isn’t so appealing anymore.”

Sokarno agrees, noting that this is the first time everyone has had to take a step back and think about what’s important them – whether that’s spending more time with your kids or partner or doing things you enjoy.

“Life has slowed down and some people aren’t as stressed in their everyday lives, so the thought of transitioning back to a full-time job, commute and traffic can be overwhelming,” says Sokarno. “Some people don’t have a job to back to now, and that might cause anxiety as well.”

How to beat ‘return anxiety’

1 Be kind to yourself

Don’t feel like you need to be excited about restrictions easing. If you’re feeling anxious, give yourself time to process your thoughts and feelings. “You have to be kind to yourself,” says Sokarno. “Show yourself compassion – we’ve had a global health pandemic and our lives have been shifted like never before.”

2 Take it day by day

Life won’t return to normal overnight (it might never be the same), so take things day by day. “Reintroduce things you think are important for your mental health. Whether that’s reconnecting with the gym community or connecting with friends and catching up, but don’t go all in at once,” warns Sokarno. “Doing too much can be overwhelming and might send you backwards.”

3 Maintain your lockdown routines

If you’re scared of losing the positive habits you’ve developed in lockdown, Manning says to map out a plan to keep them in your life. “Think about the parts of lockdown you’ve enjoyed and what elements you can bring into your life and how they can work for you and your family.”

4 Do what works for you

“Think about your needs and boundaries,” Manning tips. For example, if you’re anxious about returning to work, have a conversation with yourself about how that will look. “Will you drive or will you catch public transport and how do you feel about that? If you’ve been able to work from home successfully, ask your employer about flexibility.”

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