Transitions can be hard – and we’ve experienced a lot of them over the past year! Even a transition which is viewed as a positive step forward can take some getting used to. The prospect of lockdown easing will be making many of us feel a bit uncertain and nervous about going out again and mixing with others. Some may even feel daunted or scared, or reluctant to do so.
People with diagnosed anxiety problems such as agoraphobia, panic disorder or social anxiety may find this time particularly hard. Even if they’ve successfully had treatment in the past, their symptoms may have been aggravated over the last few months. Things like using transport, being in queues or being in a crowded place might seem overwhelming and frightening. In some cases, people who’ve never experienced anxiety disorders before may find they develop symptoms.
Where are you now? Everyone feels different right now. Some of us will be ready to batter down the door, raring to go. Some will wish they could stay inside. Others will emerge slowly and carefully, blinking their eyes! We’re all in different places in our minds, with different attitudes to what’s happening.
It’s important to recognise this, and be kind to yourself if you’re feeling afraid or uncomfortable, or wondering how you’ll cope. Lots of us have built a safe cocoon for ourselves, which we’re now being asked to leave. We’ve had permission to avoid situations we find difficult or irritating – and now we have to face them again! On top of that, things are far from normal when we do go out; for instance a visit to the pub involves sticking to a list of rules.
And of course the risk from the virus itself hasn’t gone away. Again, everyone will interpret this risk differently, even if they’ve been vaccinated: some will feel more confident, while others might still feel unsafe.
It could be hard to get back into the swing of doing things if our confidence is low; for instance ramping up real-life social interaction again. We may worry we’ve lost the knack, or have super-high expectations of ourselves and how much fun we should have. As a result we may fail to enjoy ourselves, feel anxious, and over-analyse everything afterwards. This might make some people want to keep avoiding social situations.
We know that avoidance makes anxiety difficulties worse. If there are things you want or need to do, and they’re allowed and safe, here are some tips to help you move forward.
Establish what you’re comfortable with. What situations and activities would you be happy with? What would make you uncomfortable? What level of risk would you find acceptable?
Take things at your own pace where possible. If you want to keep meeting people on a one-to-one basis, do that. Others will have their own expectations of us, so you might need to set clear boundaries and be assertive, for instance if someone puts pressure on you to do something you’re not yet ready for.
Check in with yourself. Are you avoiding something because you truly believe the risk is too high? Or is it because you’re anxious, or it’s just easier not to do it? Challenge yourself to try something every couple of days or so. It’s very easy to allow the seclusion that was necessary in lockdown to become a habit.
Prioritise what’s important to you. This is a good time to re-evaluate what really matters, so you can focus your energies on those things. Do you want to start seeing your friend every week for coffee? Do you want go to the gym again, or to walk the kids to school? Work on building your confidence and comfort in the areas you said ‘yes’ to.
If there’s something you really want to do – or something you’d rather not, but there’s no room for negotiation! – here are some CBT-based techniques that will help you get where you want to be.
Climb the ladder: Make a list of the activities you’d like to do again, then put them in order ranging from the one that feels easiest to the one that feels hardest. Going to an outdoor market might feel fairly safe, while going into a clothes shop might feel frightening, for example. Tackle them in that order, and you’ll build confidence.
Gradual exposure: If you’d love to visit a clothes shop again, for example, break the activity down into chunks. On the first day, leave the house and travel into town. Next time, get off the bus and walk along the high street. Next time, enter the shop and have a browse. You’ll feel anxious with each step, but the anxiety should drop each time you do it.
Behavioural experiment: This is worth trying if you need faster results! What do you predict will happen if you go clothes shopping? This might be “I’ll get anxious in the shop and have a panic attack” or “I want to wear a mask in town but I’ll get ridiculed”. How likely is this to happen? Then test the prediction – go into town, enter the shop and see what happens. Very often people find their prediction doesn’t come true; and if it does that they’re more able to cope than they predicted.
Finally…and very importantly…Notice your progress. When you’ve taken a step forward, look back and recognise your achievement. Compare what you can do now with what you were doing at your toughest point of lockdown, rather than what you did ‘before Covid’. Celebrate the small wins as well as the big wins!
If concerns about leaving lockdown are having an impact on your day-to-day life, find out how we use CBT to treat anxiety.