Lockdown was safe; we knew what to do - no unnecessary journeys, no socialising, stay home. There was a sameness to it; we had to abide by the same rules and we were all pretty much in the same boat. But now that we are coming back to real life, many people dread this more uncertain way of being.
The rules have changed and everything feels different. Despite the scary pictures of young people socialising in pubs, it is becoming clear that there is a whole other group who dread meeting other people and are instead choosing to remain home.
The term "re-entry anxiety" was originally coined to describe the phenomenon of young soldiers returning to society after being away at war. Psychologists are now referring to our current feelings of unease as a form of "re-entry anxiety".
There are two main reasons for post-lockdown anxiety. Some people live in fear of contracting Covid-19 and, after cocooning for months, many of us feel almost institutionalised. Others are socially anxious and feel drained by the effort required to meet people and simply can't muster up the strength to re-engage in life in all its messy uncertainty.
As a therapist, I have noticed that many socially nervous teenagers aren't keen to meet their friends again. As one adolescent said: "I'm funnier online and so are my friends. I can think about my answers. I don't say stupid things. Everything is much easier to communicate when there is no one else in the room".
During the lockdown, many of us became obsessed with contagion and now feel exhausted from all the worrying. Afraid to go outside, some people feel lonely but also filled with a lurking fear. The radar for danger is on red alert; the primal need for survival has been triggered and everything feels threatening and risky.
My 10-year-old was in a cafe with me last week and when some food went down the wrong way, he staggered to the toilet in order to cough to clear his throat.
Another young child I know secretly gave his granddad a hug and then later on that night confessed this to his mother as he was afraid that gardai would "get him".
People who have been flippant about the guidelines are almost too much for the more diligent lockdowners to bear. One person recently recounted to me how their family had been locked down since before the official lockdown. They had one designated person to go shopping and all groceries had been quarantined in the bath for 24 hours and then thoroughly washed.
This person was fully committed to prevention and was horrified by what they perceive as their best friend's wildly irresponsible approach. These two good pals are currently avoiding meeting each other.
Introverts, socially anxious people and insecure teenagers have mostly enjoyed dropping out of life and many prefer to just stay home rather than readjust to facing life again. Yet it could be argued that staying home means that you are missing out on the deeper connections that make life worth living.
While online chats can be entertaining, real-life physical connections carry more warmth and screens often operate as a block to deeper intimacy and connection.
If you feel a sense of dread that you have to face re-entry into a world where Covid-19 hasn't gone away, take heart that you are not alone; many people are filled with trepidation at the thoughts of having to navigate risk on an individual basis.
HOW TO GET THROUGH
It can be useful to devise a checklist that keeps you safe and calm. This list might entail washing your hands, wearing a mask, social distancing when possible, avoiding crowds and remaining calm. Each person's list might differ, but the point of it is to tailor it to both your physical health and your mental well-being.
Exposure therapy is considered a gold-standard treatment approach for anxiety, and a key aspect of exposure therapy is to begin in the shallow end and work your way to the deep end. You might start by meeting one friend outside and build up slowly so that you don't feel overwhelmed. If a friend's suggestions make you feel fearful, you can explain that you are taking this one step at a time.
Have a pre-learned script prepared that accurately asserts your position. This script might go along the lines of: "I feel really nervous about Covid and I want to do everything right". It doesn't really matter what your script communicates, the point is that you are declaring your request for physical space.
A "worry diary" can be a great support for some people. When an anxious thought comes to your head, make a brief note of it on your phone and go about your day. At the end of the day, you can assess how often you worried unnecessarily. As the days go by, you will soon see patterns in your thoughts and recognise common unnecessary worries.
A helpful strategy for anxious people who seek certainty is to commit to taking life in bite-size chunks. If you can break each event down into small tasks, then you are less likely to become overwrought and fall down the rabbit-hole of fear. Dividing the day into smaller segments can feel easier to navigate and so you might devise a plan of action for the morning, the afternoon and the evening.
The rules aren't clear cut anymore; we now have to take personal responsibility and assess risk as we go along and this feels exhausting for many of us. Feeling anxious is part of life but feeling constantly overwrought is unnecessary. Too many people live lives of quiet desperation, and experiences like the global pandemic can crystallise these feelings.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, do yourself and your loved ones a great favour and seek help. It could be the most meaningful decision you ever make.