What if Going Back to Normal Isn't What You Want?
For many, lockdown has presented fresh mental health challenges, but for others the idea of returning to 'normal' may be what is causing anxiety
Psychotherapist Shelley Williams explores why this might be, and how we can learn from our conflicted feelings
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Lockdown restrictions in the UK have eased though they remain in place; but the rhetoric is shifting towards a phased return to normality. Lockdown being, in essence, protection against a significant threat to our lives, it has largely been accepted in the UK as necessary for our health and wellbeing. With personal and financial burdens weighing heavy, however, many are keen for restrictions to be lifted. But what if your anxiety has eased during lockdown, and now you are anxious at the prospect of a return to your normal life? What if going back to normal is not what you want?
How our minds protect us
Our minds are cleverly designed to defend us against real, perceived, and anticipated harm, and one of our chief defences is, essentially, psychic lockdown. Part of us remains imprisoned so as to avoid anticipated pain, because earlier experiences have left one certain that curiosity, exploration, expression, desire, vulnerability and/or emotional connection are harmful. This type of defence may appear in our dreams as a cave, prison or fortress. Or it might appear as a military organisation or mafia-like gang.
The intention is to keep a threatened part of us safe from harm. This (perhaps once-traumatised) part of us hunkers down, causing us to retreat. The trouble with a lockdown is that, by serving one purpose, it puts us at risk of harm in other ways. Its protective function, if it becomes the dominant feature, serves against growth and living a fulfilling life. Relationships are put at risk, because it becomes very difficult to reach out and touch, or be touched by, someone from this place of inner sanctuary. The solitary, silent nature of a lockdown creates other painful losses, losses of relationship and connection to others but also to ourselves.
If you tend to feel anxious or depressed in your normal life, your inner world may be very familiar with this way of functioning. It has served you well in the past because, at some time, long ago, you learned that this adaptive strategy protects you. Perhaps it protected you from harsh criticism. Or it may have protected you from terrible feelings of shame. It may have protected you, and those you relied upon, from what you perceived to be your destructive angry self. The problem is, it was established in your psyche so long ago that you have forgotten its purpose. Without its purpose, how can you possibly find the key to unlock you from your anxiety so you can live a new ‘normal’ that feels more fulfilling?
A thought experiment
To say more, I need to invite you to use your imagination. Imagine if we were to stay in lockdown for decades. The discussions and debates in government go underground. The press spread propaganda. Armies are set up to stop people leaving their homes. The virus slips from our conscious memory and, with it, any suggestion or knowledge that a vaccine has been discovered. We no longer know why we are in lockdown but we feel certain that it is not safe to leave our home and, when we dare, on those rare occasions, we are threatened by the military who march us back to our residence, guns pointing menacingly at our startled heads. A small part of us remains questioning, yearning to remember what it is that so frightens us, sullen in our sanctuary and certain that something is missing.
Right now, the UK lockdown restrictions make absolute sense. The virus is the threat, and we are becoming more knowledgeable about the risks. Our anxiety, at a time when there is a real threat to our lives, is rational.
In our imaginary (horrifying!) future scenario, the anxiety no longer makes sense. The perceived threat has, in fact, been eliminated by a vaccine so that we are no longer at risk, but we have lost touch with the parts of society – the government, the media, the scientists – that are meant to keep us informed so that we can keep making helpful and rational judgments about our safety and wellbeing.
How this imagined situation reflects our inner world
This dystopian future is not, of course, the anticipated state of the UK, but the current state of our inner worlds when we suffer from anxiety and depression. It is frightening and powerful and disturbs our sleep with terrifying dreams of prisons and persecutory gangs. In our normal lives, we don’t know what we are afraid of, and we are unable to make rational judgments about risk. All we know is that we feel very anxious when we step out of the office lift and hear muffled voices in the kitchen and the familiar churn of the photocopier. Or when we arrive at the school gate and realise we have to make small talk with parents who seem far friendlier and more confident than we ever imagine we could be. Or when our alarm sounds in the morning and we notice the leaves outside the window are rustling in a warm breeze and yet, despite this, we have a feeling of dread in our stomach.
There is no reason, no rationale to our feeling. It is nonsensical and that makes the dread more fearsome. We don’t even know why we are scared, but a part of us, the military might that bosses us every morning and can ruin a sunny, summer’s day, has become very powerful in making us fretful and obedient.
What if you don't want to return to 'normal'?
What to do, then? What to do if you feel anxious at returning to your normal life? Well let’s look at our dystopian future. Firstly, we need to stand up to the military forces and remind ourselves that their guns are not loaded. They may stamp their feet and bark their orders but we can walk on by. This is the part of our psyche that prevents us from having our feelings and knowing our minds. This is the part, for example, that disregards helpful challenges, insisting that we stay wedded and unthinking to the repeated rhetoric of our threatened survival lest we dissent.
Next, we must take on the friendly neighbours who whisper worried warnings. These are the parts of our psyche that say to us, you can’t do that speech, you’ll be ridiculed, you’ll die of shame, stay quiet, stay safe.
Thirdly, we have to ignore the propaganda messages on all the billboards that read: go back to your sanctuary, stay alive and stay hidden. These are the inner messages that tell us that our dissertation is too complicated to tackle, that the new job will leave us out of our depth, that being vulnerable in a relationship will expose us to damnation and desertion.
We must, then, confront the totalitarian government, our most critical voice, the part of us that places harsh restrictions on our movements and conversations, the Victorian-father part of us that threatens to punish us if we disobey his commands and leaves no room for questions. He tells us that the way we communicated in that meeting was disastrous and we don’t deserve a pay rise. He devalues and derides.
We must go underground, into our unconscious, and search for the missing pieces, the secret files that document our story. It will take a lot of searching and we might need a therapist to bear with us, to sometimes speak up for us, to help us stand up against the dark forces that keep us under psychic lockdown, and discover what it is we have been so afraid of for so long. We might discover there was a ‘vaccine’ and that the thing we are afraid of is no longer a real threat, only an imagined one that hails from our inner world. Or we might discover that while there is no ‘vaccine’ against the initial threat, we now are far more resourceful than we realise.
When you go searching in the files of your unconscious bunker, you are likely to come across conflict. The mind in conflict is a troubled one. You may, for example, love your mother dearly but you discover that you are also filled with anger at her intrusive comments and belittling snipes. It can feel very unsettling to balance these conflicting feelings in our conscious minds, and one way we will have historically resolved the dilemma is by storing part of the conflict – in this example, our angry feelings towards our mother – in an unconscious drawer marked classified. There they reside like lost, yellowing archaic guidebooks guarded by the military personnel of our dream world. How will you re-find them?
What happens when we suppress our feelings
These feelings don’t sit quietly. They thrash about causing mayhem. They cause skin rashes and eating disorders and depression. They find all manner of symptoms to alert us to their presence. They want to be discovered and they won’t give up the battle until they are given freedom of expression. We might start by noticing their rumblings. When your skin flares, or your depression deepens, notice what is happening. Perhaps it happens each time you feel ignored? Each time your mother rings? Each time you give up your me-time to attend to someone else’s needs? Try not to judge - remember that’s the guard at the front door. Let him bark. Try to ignore him and let yourself listen and notice what your body is telling you. Those forgotten feelings have something very important to tell you about how you might live more freely now.
The situation is very complex. Oftentimes this stops us from daring to look. We want quick fixes and reassurance. Delving into our inner world means stepping outside the front door when we have been locked in our bunkers all our lives. We need to be committed and bold and know that the going will get tough, and we may need a trusted therapist alongside us, who we can relate to, to guide us when we falter.
If you have been feeling less anxious during the pandemic lockdown you might be feeling a rising anxiety now. Just as easing the UK lockdown raises anxiety levels, easing psychic lockdown is anxiety-provoking too. Our normal lives may exacerbate inner conflicts. Relationships with family, colleagues, friends, may all stir psychic mayhem. Normal life may involve decisions we have made for the benefit of others, at the expense of our own needs. It may face us with troubling dilemmas. These conflicts are difficult to confront.
Stepping outside of our comfort zone is inherently risky. We must balance our need for safety with our need for connection. There is a vibrant, beautiful world out there and we are deprived while we are without it. The remarkable thing about psychic lockdown is that it not only serves to keep us safe but, even when it has become maladaptive, it can also be adaptive. And so, too, the current outer-world lockdown restrictions might offer an opportunity for growth. While South-Eastern carriages sit in their sidings and the sounds in city centres are still dominated by birdsong, you may have an opportunity to be mindful of your everyday-normal-life psychic lockdown.
If your inner world is an authoritarian one keeping you anxiously locked in, you can start by questioning. What is it you want? What would you like to change about your normal life? What stops you from choosing something different? If the ‘worried neighbours’ of your internal world are softening your responses, go ahead and ask yourself again. What is it you really want? And what is it that you don’t want? Be curious. How do your answers make you feel?
Draconian governments do not like questions because they threaten the order of things. Expect a protest from your inner militia but listen to those internal murmurings, the feelings you have historically filed away. It may just be the start to finding your new normal.