When the coronavirus lockdown began in March, most people's lives changed in immeasurable ways. At the time, we were bombarded with (admittedly, very helpful) advice on how to cope with anxiety, should we experience it during lockdown. But with restrictions slowly starting to ease in many parts of the world, there are many people who have seen an increase in anxiety all over again, this time about leaving lockdown. Posts to the effect of "I felt anxious going into lockdown, and now I feel anxious about leaving lockdown" have been popping up around social media for the past couple of weeks, and it's given rise to the term "re-entry anxiety."
We wanted to find out exactly what re-entry anxiety is, whether it's normal to be experiencing trepidation about leaving lockdown, and how to cope if you are feeling anxious.
What Is Re-Entry Anxiety?
The short answer is that "post-lockdown anxiety is real," said Dr Balu Pitchiah, consultant psychiatrist and scientific advisor to Cannaray, who added that it's normal to feel like the storm might be subsiding, but the unknown danger remains.
Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London, agreed. "We went into lockdown with the understanding that it was protecting us from harm," Dr Touroni told POPSUGAR. "If you've been told that it's not safe to be out and about, it's only natural that leaving lockdown would trigger anxiety for some people." She explained that many people have felt that their home has become a "safe bubble" during this time, so it's normal that we might feel exposed when coming out of it.
What Is the Cause of Re-Entry Anxiety?
Dr. Touroni and Dr. Pitchiah both agreed that forced change is likely the root cause of re-entry anxiety. "In this context specifically, we need to be aware of the messages that have been given to us: like 'stay home, stay safe,'" said Dr. Touroni. "It can take time to undo those kinds of messages, so it's understandable that we might feel a sense of worry and anxiety."
Dr. Pitchiah explained that people are typically used to routines, roadmaps, and specific timelines, but those simply don't exist during the current COVID-19 pandemic. "The uncertainty of the future, unknown fear of the impact of the virus, and a forced change to the 'normal' way of life does cause a great deal of stress," he said. "This leads to a feeling of a lack of control, anxiety, and a heightened perception of threat." He explained that while the lockdown brought a great deal of relief for those who were forced to do multiple anxiety-inducing activities each day, "a number of us will now be quite comfortable with the new 'norm' and may now be worrying about what comes next." He added that there's also the "additional fear of catching the virus once we come out of lockdown due to exposure."
Who Is Most Likely to Experience Re-Entry Anxiety?
"This world of COVID-19 has posed some very real anxieties for almost all of us," said Dr. Touroni. "It has amplified health anxieties and caused financial worries about the future, and it's likely to have exacerbated any preexisting anxieties even more. Anxiety itself is a feeling of threat or vulnerability to harm in the world, so it's understandable that this would be heightened given everything that has happened."
Many people have felt that their home has become a "safe bubble" during this time, so it's normal that we might feel exposed when coming out of it.
When specifically speaking about re-entry anxiety and, in particular, how conflicting messages from governments could be contributing to this, Dr. Touroni admitted that distrust or uncertainty toward government is likely to have an impact. "It's also about the way we relate to authority figures on a more personal level; whether we believe they're there to protect us, or we're more distrustful of them. If you have a tendency to not trust authority figures, then you're more likely to experience the government as being neglectful or acting in a self-interested way." She also explained that if you are generally more cautious day-to-day, then you're more likely to experience a high level of anxiety getting back into the world in the post-lockdown phase.
People who weren't anxious or worried about lockdown in the first place probably won't experience re-entry anxiety, according to the experts. "I've noticed that the people who have generally found lockdown very difficult didn't necessarily feel like they needed it in order to feel safe to begin with," said Dr. Touroni. "Because of this, they're not feeling particularly anxious about coming out of it. Whereas, the people who found lockdown comforting are the ones who are now experiencing more anxiety around coming back out." She said that the latter group are generally the same people who embraced the idea of a "new normal" and focussed on finding a version of normal that made them feel safe. "The people who weren't anxious to begin with don't necessarily want a new normal and instead are experiencing a sense of loss (rather than anxiety) of things not going back to the way they were."
How to Cope With Re-Entry Anxiety
Dr. Pitchiah has some simple strategies to managing any re-entry anxiety you may be experiencing, and it all starts with acknowledging that it is real. He also suggested trying to deal with one worry at a time, and categorising the things you can and can't control (and focus on the former). One thing you can control is creating a calm environment which might coincidentally help to calm your feelings, too — a comforting blanket, soothing music, or a scented candle might help to make self-nurturing activities a priority. He also suggested establishing a routine (and sticking to it), picking out the positive elements in your daily life to focus your energy toward, and, most importantly, never hesitate to seek professional help if necessary; you are not alone.
When faced with returning to the "real world", Dr. Touroni encourages everyone to be aware of the facts when it comes to the current levels of COVID-19 in their community. "Remind yourself that the numbers have gone down significantly in many parts of the country," she said. "Be aware of the statistics and take an approach that is proportionate to how threatening the virus is to you (and your friends and family). Stay connected to your own goals and values in life. How do you want to live your life? Can you see the benefits of life reopening? What do you stand to gain from connecting with your friends and family again?"
POPSUGAR aims to give you the most accurate and up-to-date information about the coronavirus, but details and recommendations about this pandemic may have changed since publication. For the latest information on COVID-19, please check out resources from the WHO, the NHS, and GOV.UK.