Navigating the Anxious Return to Normality
As lockdown restrictions lift, difficult emotions may arise as we are invited to return to 'normal'
Trainee psychotherapist Eliza Preston encourages taking time to reflect and ask yourself important questions about what you want and need
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Looking at the photos of Bournemouth beach and the streets of Soho in recent weeks, you would be forgiven for thinking that everyone is just thrilled to re-engage in the bustle and bubble of social life. Those who shout loudest get heard. Quiet nervousness and uncertainty make for less dramatic headlines. In the following passages I want to acknowledge those less ‘shouty’ feelings, to offer them some time and space, and invite you to do the same.
Some of us are processing tragic losses, overwhelming stress, bewilderment, loneliness, grief. While Soho throngs, many watch fearfully, sensing the threat of the virus still at large. The sights of thousands of people crowding into public spaces is a sharp reminder of our vulnerability to the actions of others. Alongside these clearly identifiable concerns a more subtle disquiet drifts, one difficult to pinpoint, but palpable all the same.
How lockdown has changed us
Whether we loved or loathed lockdown, we have all in some way adapted to it. We’ve spent the best part of four months navigating a strange world with new laws, new ways of engaging with friends and families, new daily routines, new priorities. We may have been reluctant and resentful to be ‘locked-down’, confined to our hermit’s shell while the storm rolled over above. But we have adjusted nonetheless, altering our habits and days to fit this constrained existence. We’ve furnished our hermit’s shell as best we can, made it cosy. And so it is perhaps unsurprising that we feel anxious and fearful to leave it, to re-adjust and adapt to our world with another new set of risks and potential.
Existential philosophy invites us to consider our emotions as signals – neither good nor bad, but indicators of our moment-by-moment relationship with the world around us. In times of change, in which we must adapt quickly, these signals can flash with an intensity that feels overwhelming. Our instinctive reaction is avoidance. We are experts at making ourselves busy, at drowning out, at parking things for another day. In the majority of cases, these avoidance tactics only serve to sharpen the sting.
What we can learn from our emotions
Remaining curious in our emotions is by no means easy. But like a child demanding attention, sometimes the only way to end the nagging is to hear them out, to offer gentle patience and ask: ‘OK, what is it that you are trying to tell me?’
In this light, anxiety is an invitation to be curious, to reflect on our experience of life in lockdown – the rough and the smooth, the highs and the lows, the balance we have tried to establish between these poles. Was it loneliness, or solitude we felt? Boredom or peace? For those with children, boredom and peace may seem like dreamy luxuries. But despite the overwhelm and chaos of containing the energies and demands of young people at home, returning to more spacious, separate lives may arouse unexpected and conflicting emotions.
Taking time to reflect allows us to bring light to these conflicts and paradoxes, those niggling emotions so confusing yet so persistent. It is a process of exploring what we’re feeling, how those feelings connect (or mis-connect) with our thoughts, what those feelings might indicate about our deeper values and needs. The questions and answers of this process are limitless and unique to each individual. Here are a few that I have been playing with myself;
- What have I not missed in the past few months?
- What feature(s) of lockdown-life have become valuable to me? Can I protect space for them as old demands begin to crowd back in?
- What aspect of the return to normality is hooking my anxiety? Can I untangle and make sense of where this nervousness is coming from?
- Is there a process of adjustment to change or loss that needs more time?
I offer these as morsels to feed the reflective process, not a definitive checklist. The impact of coronavirus on each of us will be as diverse as we are, and the questions it asks of us will be just as myriad. This crisis has swept through life like a flash flood. We’ve been forced to evacuate many corners of our existence and confine ourselves to a small safety. As we begin to move back into abandoned spaces and practices, to refurnish our days and weeks, it is worth asking, do we want to re-create what was? Or is this an opportunity to gently, slowly, re-decorate?
Eliza Preston is a verified trainee psychotherapist in Camberwell and online