A psychological road-map out of lockdown
Updated: Apr 6
Around 10% of the UK population suffer from social anxiety according to Mentalhealthy.co.uk.
Social anxiety is a debilitating feeling of fear within or in anticipation of social situations. This can be triggered by traumatic experiences, agoraphobia, a dislike of crowds amongst other catalysts, and is commonly treated by easing into a process of desensitisation eg: visualising the social situation - > spending a short time around it -> spending a short time within it…and building up to feel comfortable. (As well as the experiences, clients are taught emotion-regulation exercises eg: how to manage breathing, or how to channel fear into physical movement). Lockdown will have prevented any form of practice for those already suffering, and unfortunately “fear-based” adverts, as well as traumatic experiences which many people have suffered may well create a fear in others. In my own experience, the question of “how to manage panic when going out” has come up in every stress-management workshop I have run since June 2020.
Do you have mixed feelings about coming out of lockdown?
Many people surprisingly have expressed mixed feelings about socialising again, about getting busy, having their weekends and evenings booked up again and whilst we all want some sense of normality to return there is a common sense of trepidation and wanting to hold on to some of the things that have changed. And also a bit of anxiety about mixing again and coming out of our little safe bubbles.
An alternative reason for the “fear” is to see it, in some, as a codename for “reluctance”. For a number of people, going into lockdown enabled some time to re-assess priorities. In doing so some, myself included, began to realise that we didn’t really want to do all the things we were doing pre-lockdown – and lockdown was a “nice excuse” not to do them: eg “Sorry, can’t – we’re Tier 4”. For example, this Christmas, when I didn’t have to go anywhere, and wasn’t worried about “looking bad because I didn’t want to go anywhere!” it was one of the most peaceful times of my life. For some, it is therefore important to “come clean” and own the fact that we do enjoy solitude, and that it is important to our wellbeing – we would love to see friends and family, but perhaps less often than we did before. This doesn’t mean we love them less, but want to make sure those times we do meet are wonderful for all concerned.
Unfortunately another trigger may be that people have lost loved ones within the pandemic. If this happened at the start in particular, there can be an association with “I left the house one day, and then my parent was taken into hospital and never came out.” This is a heartbreaking position to be in, and it is certainly possible that the grief and pain could be transferred into a fear of going out…ie what if the same thing happens again!?
For others perhaps it is not fear but “exhaustion”. While, for example, people may unkindly comment on “workshy teachers” (I am not saying there aren’t some – there are excellent professionals and lazy ones in every field) – but in my own experience as a lecturer and ex school teacher with a number of teaching friends – teachers have been jumping through every singe hoop to keep schools running with online sessions, in situ classes for keyworker children, marking, assessing, parents evenings – as well as containing anxieties of colleagues, parents and the pupils themselves…people are just too tired to want to think about a “new normal”…they are barely “Normal” from the last change.
So what can we do?
Some suggestions for a psychological roadmap out:
1. If you have already got into a routine, then try to fit it around the working day. Although working from home, I planned my fitness routine around a day which would normally have a commute – ie. I run in the morning but rather than do it at 8am, because I’m not having to drive 2 hours to work, I do it at 6am, so that when I am back in the car, it’s easy to fit in.
2. If you haven’t got a routine that will fit within the return to the office times, then start making those changes bit by bit…it’s like setting your watch to the time zone you’re travelling to…you are preparing for it now.
3. If you have been using the pandemic as a reason not to see people, and are worried about having to make up excuses, consider being honest with people and explaining that you recharge best on your own, and while you would love to see them, you’d like to do it on a less regular basis/shorter time – and maybe find ways of still seeing each other but not having to do it in person. We’ve all got the online platforms, why not incorporate them into the “New normal!?” and have a family Zoom or WhatsApp rather than a full gathering – or ask if they’d mind if you just “dropped in” via Alexa instead of go round. It's ok to say no!
4. Now is a great time to reassess our values and what you DO want – that way we know what to make time for, and are then able to say, quite honestly, “no sorry, that’s my Gym session”, or “Sorry, that’s my date night”.
Try this exercise - draw a wheel and divide it into 8 segments:
Think about all the things you are doing write now which you LOVE and write them into the segments of the wheel.
If you need to, create more segments to include anything ADDITIONAL you will have to make time for - and note in which current (love) segment it will intrude!
Keep a note of where (on the scale of 0-10 in each segment) you are in engaging with that thing eg. You might have Exercise written down as something you LOVE, BUT you find that, back at work your commute is now taking up a space of 10 an Exercise has been squeeze down to 1…
DO something about it.
Writing out what you want to prioritise keeps you focused on what is most important to you, and the visual representation of where your time is going may be enough to nudge you into doing something about making some switches before the “new normal” becomes the “old overwhelmed”.
5. Try a bit of spring cleaning and see if you can get energised by all the things in your wardrobe you want to wear - even try some of them on again and take a short walk around the block and think about how great you feel.
For managing feelings of panic – eg when you think about going out
- Try running on the spot very very fast - so the feelings of fear "change" to feelings of physical exertion - this can sometimes help calm the body as it now thinks it's in recovery after exercise rather than trying to calm psychological anxiety
- Regular breathing exercises eg every morning, before getting up, spend 2 minutes breathing in for 4 (via nose), hold 2, out for 6 (via mouth) with the affirmation "Even if I can't control anything else, I can control my breathing." This may also be a useful way to respond to feelings of panic - stopping, and doing the breathing routine while repeating the affirmation.
- Visualisation: This sometimes works for preventing panic attacks eg: visualise going out of the house to the thing you are worried about - eg the route there and back - leaving the house happy and positive, and going round the route, really happy and positive - sights, sounds, smells to enhance the imagery - and returning home and everything is great.
One of the most important things to remember is what we need, what we want, and what we hope for is not going to be the same as everyone else - respect yourself and others too.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience.