Managing the anxiety that comes with the ‘new normal’

Katie Hoare shares simple practices to help you manage adjusting to life after lockdown

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on Happiful

‘Re-entry anxiety’, a specific form of stress related to the fear of being unable to adapt to previously established routines, well describes our current fear of trying to establish, and be comfortable in, our old lives before the COVID-19 outbreak and social distancing measures.

People can experience re-entry anxiety in relation to a different things – for example car accidents, which may leave victims unwilling to get back into a car as their association with the vehicle is now negative. Whether you, unfortunately, caught this virus or not, you can still identify with this anxiety around returning to normal, which for the past many weeks we have been denied, because the ‘normal’ caused the risk to grow.

Lockdown has created a safe bubble for me, my home, in which myself and my partner have existed safely; the threat of bursting that bubble makes me nervous, but I’m comforted to know that I’m not alone in this fear. A recent poll by Ipsos MORI found that 67% of British people feel uncomfortable about attending large public gatherings, music or sporting events, compared to how they felt before the virus, and three-in-five Brits are sceptical about going to bars and restaurants, or using public transport again.

I haven’t ventured far; the weekly supermarket shop, or the odd trip to Homebase, has been my limit but, as soon as I see the front of the shop, I feel a noticeable tightening of my chest. I am on high alert for anyone within a two metre radius, and I can recognise that lockdown, and the easing of it, has triggered some previous anxious habits I thought I had under control.

Counsellor and supervisor Beverley Hills explains that not all of us are able to embrace change. “Some people find the thought of a ‘new normal’ terrifying and the fear of the unknown looms large, often threatening to overwhelm; our creative brain imagines all sorts but, unless we have superpowers, none of us can predict the future.” We must remember that not many of us have lived through a pandemic and, while re-entry is inevitable, it can be at your own pace. Whilst I may be yearning for my previous life, I’m taking things slowly.

Here’s how you can prepare yourself for re-entry and manage your anxiety around doing so.

Take each day at your own pace

Although measures may be loosened you don’t have to jump straight back into your old routine. If leaving the house on foot is the only method you’re comfortable with, stick with it, but try and go a little further each day. Maybe introduce a break on a bench for five minutes, and learn to be comfortable in the presence of others people – responsibly, of course.

If your office re-opens, but you can still work from home, gradually build up your attendance in the office so that you slowly re-establish a routine that’s comfortable for you.

If you have no control over when you return to work, have some measures in place that allow you to be as comfortable as possible that you can discuss with your employer. Whether it’s anxiety over returning to work, or fear of catching the virus, talking is a great tool to move you forward.

Plan ahead

Things may not turn out as you had planned, so try and prepare yourself for this. You might find you struggle with mood swings, or a feeling of unease, so find a comfortable place in your house which you feel totally at ease in, and spend five minutes there, practising some simple breathing exercises to create a sense of calm.

Perhaps you have struggled with panic attacks in the past, and are nervous that these may return as you face an uncertain future. Practice 10 minutes of mindfulness each day, tuning into all of your senses. What can you see, hear, smell, touch and taste? When you feel an attack coming on, try and tap into this practice; feel your feet on the ground and know that you are safe and grounded.

“Take a moment and do what we call Socratic Questioning,” Beverley recommends. “Ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen, what’s the best that can happen and what’s most likely to happen? In this way you can be prepared for all eventualities without going down the rabbit hole of rumination which, as we all know, leads nowhere.

“Remember, your anxious thoughts won’t stop things happening; they will, however, ensure you get upset. Pace yourself, take things slowly, what’s the rush? A good idea is to talk to counsellor who can help you learn how to manage your anxieties in a healthier way.”

How to broach the subject of re-entry anxiety in relation to a young relative returning to school

The thought of my three-year-old niece returning to her nursery soon made me uncomfortable. It made me feel helpless. But was it my place to voice my concerns?

This was tricky; I was afraid of sounding like a judgemental auntie and, potentially, damaging my relationship with my brother – I didn’t know how to broach the subject with him. So, instead, I looked at the facts regarding the virus and children, I spoke to colleagues who had children and discovered how they were managing to send their children back to school.

As I’m not a parent, I didn’t understand the measures put in place by each school for the protection of staff and children, nor did I understand how the virus has affected the area my brother lives in. So I did speak to my brother, purely to understand how the nursery would move forward with protecting against the virus – and this put my worries at ease.

I have to remember that my brother knows his child best and will have taken all precautions to do what’s right for her. In this instance, knowledge is key and engaging in supportive conversations paramount.

How to support young children returning to school

Children returning to school may also be struggling with anxiety and fear, similar to that feeling of first starting school. It’s difficult for a child to fully understand lockdown alongside the re-introduction of a ‘normal’ routine that is still restricted.

Clinical hypnotherapist and NLP practitioner Les Roberts has written a useful article –  Helping children with anxieties and stresses during the pandemic – in which she explains how you can support a child struggling to make sense of things.

“It’s important to talk to your children about what’s happening,” she says. “Be open, and explain the situation as well as you can. Talk to them about their feelings, anxieties and what can you do to make them feel better. Help them find solutions, offer alternative things to do to take their minds away from whatever is causing them to feel anxious. Reassure them that all will be ok, and that you understand what they are going through. Be mindful of what you discuss/talk about within earshot of children. ”

If you’re struggling with re-entry anxiety for yourself, or for others, try not to put too much pressure on yourself, and take control of the things that are in reach. If you need to talk, Samaritans offer a free, confidential listening service available 24/7 on 116 123 or you can reach out to a qualified counsellor via counselling directory.

Whatever the new normal will be, you will adapt, and you will find comfort in the knowledge that you can.

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