Coping with life after covid
As countries begin to undertake mass vaccination programmes and ease restrictions, offering more freedom and a glimpse of things to come, you would think we would all be feeling elated! Over the last 12 months, where we have been faced with numerous and very challenging restrictions, conversations have been filled with grief, loss and fantasies of what our days will look like once life returned to “normal” again. We were all itching to get back to our everyday lives. Yet as restrictions lift, and we begin to pick up the fabric of our lives again, instead of skipping out of our front doors we find ourselves feeling hesitant. Reserved. Uncomfortable. Many of us are finding this difficult to fully embrace. We feel uncertain as to what this “new normal” looks like and what to expect of it. We feel vulnerable as we step into the unknown and wonder when the next ‘lockdown’ will be and what it might look and feel like. We find ourselves recognising and feeling grateful for many of the things that the restrictions gifted us where we rested more, spent more quality time with out families, and commuted only one flight of stairs to work.
Although it may feel crass to acknowledge, perhaps for many of us the restrictions have had some unexpected sliver-linings. Whether we suffered with our mental health prior to lockdown or not, many of us are recognising that not having to deal with the overstimulation of life in the outside world has led to a greater sense of general wellbeing. For others the impact has been profoundly negative. Each of us will have our own repair work to do as we re-enter a world of physical proximity to people, emotional connection and societal expectation. We will each have our own recovery from the psychological trauma of having lived under chronic uncertainty, isolation, financial insecurity, job loss, and for some, the death of friends and loved ones, to do.
We have yet to see what the full extent of the fallout from this pandemic will be on our mental health, but what we are recognising is that it will not necessarily only be people with an existing mental health condition who will be affected. Whatever the effect, we are all expecting it to be significant. When we have been living a small and simple life for a significant period of time, it can feel very strange to step outside and re-engage in activities that used to be the fabric of our everyday lives. Using public transport or going to a restaurant for dinner, can provoke a feeling of anxiety and unease. It is easy to loose our confidence to do the things that we haven’t done in a while.
Anxieties about returning to life after restrictions form part of a wider psychological condition known as re-entry anxiety. Re-entry anxiety is a term that describes returning to a previously familiar environment after a life-changing or traumatic experience. For many of us this describes the fear of the unknown and the loss of a sense of safety that was crated by enforced lockdown. Re-entry anxiety has some parallels with how we respond to trauma. For example if you are in a car accident you may find that you make a good physical and psychological recovery initially. When you are faced with the prospect of getting back into the car again to drive somewhere however your anxieties are triggered once again. This is largely because we are being faced with a situation that we have come to perceive as dangerous. Some people will be more likely to experience re-entry anxiety than others. Those with a history of anxiety, for example, will be more prone to these kinds of concerns. There will also be some individual factors that make it more or less likely that you will experience this. For example, those who have also experienced bereavement, sickness, or extreme upheaval due to personal or professional changes will be more likely to feel anxious about the easing of restrictions because they have come to beleive that the outside world is unsafe.
In order to manage your experience of re-entry anxiety, you have to find a way to restructure your daily routines and adapt to a new normal. Re-enter slowly and carefully. Be prepared for the idea that things will not be quite the same, and anticipate that you might feel disoriented and feel overwhelmed by your emotions at times. Take your time.
One thing I am sure of amongst the silver linings and the trauma of the COVID experience, we will never return entirely to “normal”, nor should we. Normal was not working. If we go back to the way things were before we will have lost the lesson in all of this. Crises shape our world. In these moments, that which is broken gets revealed for just how broken it is. In the words of Matt Haigh “yes lockdown poses its own mental health challenges. But can we please stop pretending our former world of long working course, stressful commutes, hectic crowds, shopping centres, infinite choice, mass consumerism, air pollution, and 24/7 everything was a mental health utopia…” Such crises however do more than simply throw light on the world as it is and what needs to be fixed, they also rip open the fabric of our every day lives and through the hole that opens up, we glimpse other possibilities. Liberating possibilities. Loss and gain rarely exist in isolation.
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