Struggling with the effects of post-pandemic anxiety? You’re not alone. Lafina Diamandis, GP and certified lifestyle medic specialising in Millennial and Gen Z health issues, breaks down social anxiety and how we can move forward in a positive way as lockdown eases.
When the government announced the roadmap out of lockdown a few weeks ago, there were mixed reactions – as you might expect after being in lockdown for almost a year! Some people feel excited at the prospect of life returning to normal while others are experiencing feelings of ‘post-pandemic anxiety’. I’ve heard the term “social anxiety” banded about quite a lot in reference to this however, social anxiety disorder or social phobia is actually a condition where there is chronic fear associated with social situations such as meeting friends or strangers and is associated with a great deal of stress and anxiety before, during and after the social situation. People affected may also experience low self-esteem, fear of criticism, self-consciousness and suffer with physical symptoms such as sweating, palpitations, nausea and panic attacks too. While there are certainly people with social anxiety who will also be feeling more anxious than usual about socialising again and there may also be a number of people with undiagnosed social anxiety experiencing symptoms, I think it’s important to distinguish between what social anxiety is and what is a normal emotional response to being in lockdown for a year.
We have all experienced huge changes and challenges to our social circumstances in the past year, with some of us spending long periods of time alone or within a limited bubble of social contacts. We have also had to adapt to a new way of life which has radically impacted our lifestyles, work and relationships and while this initially caused discomfort, we very quickly adapted to that new way of living – whether we like that new way of living or not. Human beings are creatures of habit and we benefit from routine and consistency as it allows us to save time and energy. Therefore on an emotional and energetic level, facing yet more changes and having to adapt to a new set of circumstances causes friction and discomfort.
Another consideration is that for some of us, lockdown has allowed us the luxury of time to reflect and focus on what is important in life, to lead healthier lifestyles, to develop hobbies, to enjoy being still, daydreaming and quite literally doing ‘nothing’. Many of my friends, colleagues and clients have been dreading life returning to normal for this reason, one phrase that keeps coming up is “Life was too fast before, I can’t go back to living like that” and people are feeling anxious about losing this higher quality of life that has been achieved by simplifying, slowing down, working from home, and generally living life more on their own terms.
However, it’s not just the fear of losing ‘the good stuff’ that is plaguing people. We mustn’t forget that while the vaccination programme is in full swing and we start to enjoy having more choice and freedom, there are still some people who need to continue to isolate and understandably feel frustrated or worried that they will be ‘left behind’. The concern about catching or transmitting coronavirus to someone else is still very real for people and we should all be mindful of this and offer support to anyone struggling as life returns to normal.
So how do we cope with this feeling of unease or ‘return anxiety’? Here are some tips I’ve been sharing with my patients, clients and friends over the last few weeks:
ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR FEELINGS: It’s normal to experience a range of feelings around lockdown easing. Be kind and patient with yourself and try to take each day as it comes, acknowledging stressful emotions when they arise. Practising mindfulness or journaling can be useful ways to process our feelings, get to the heart of why we are feeling that way and take some of the power out of negative emotions.
TALK ABOUT IT: Talk about what’s on your mind with friends and family, it’s highly likely that they are experiencing the same sorts of feelings and it’s often really useful to learn how other people are coping with the same problem.
TAKE YOUR TIME: Pace yourself, if you’re not ready to start meeting up with people yet that’s fine, only do what you feel comfortable with. You can always start with small challenges such as going to the supermarket at busier times of day, changing the route on your daily walk or meeting up with just one friend at a time and building from there. Don’t rush yourself, it’s not a race, just do what feels right for you.
DOING THE BASICS: It’s well known that exercise, sleep and nutrition have a massive impact on our mood and brain health as well as the rest of the body. Try to exercise regularly (even just a daily walk), maintain a consistent bedtime routine, and following a balanced diet are all important ways to manage stress levels, regulate mood and combat feelings of stress or anxiety.
BELIEVE IN YOURSELF: Don’t forget how adaptable you are – just as you adapted to lockdown conditions you will be able to adapt again, congratulate yourself on how far you’ve come, you’ve got this!
TAKE YOUR NEW LIFE WITH YOU: Write a list of what you have gained from lockdown (or are afraid of losing) and leave the rest behind. Perhaps it’s been spending quality time with family, leading a less-stressful life, not commuting or exercising more. By focusing on these benefits and what they mean to you, you can try to prioritise them and work them into your daily life post-pandemic.
GET CREATIVE: Engaging in any creative activity is a wonderful way to ease stress and use a different part of the brain. This could be dancing, painting, colouring-in or trying something completely new. Try a new skill is fun, focuses the mind on the task at hand and builds confidence too!
Finally, if you are struggling with any symptoms of stress or anxiety around lockdown easing please do reach out to your GP. There is no problem too big or too small and we are here to support you!
words by Lafina Diamandis