Are you feeling unsure and anxious about life after lockdown? Be assured, you’re not alone in it. As the governments around the world announce the removal of the restrictions imposed during the lockdown, many people are anxious about their ability to readjust themselves back to normality. Though most people are yearning for the time when they would get to live like before, there are outliers, who find comfort in all of this, and now tend to prefer the ‘lockdown life’, terrified about returning to their social lives.
This ‘post-lockdown anxiety’ includes the fear of stepping out of our homes and starting to meet people again. Though the lockdown has worked well to decrease the spread of the virus, it has added to the woes by contributing to increased levels of social anxiety in people, already affected by social media and the continuous COVID-19 coverage.
Why You’re So Anxious About Going Back to the Office?
1. Transitions naturally spike our anxiety.
A lot of human psychology has an evolutionary basis. Familiar situations tend to be safer and more predictable for us. They allow us to let our guard down. In unfamiliar situations, we’re wired to be more on edge, and constantly on the lookout for dangers. Because of this, transitions tend to increase our anxiety. We’re always subtly on the lookout for potential threats. This reaction has an adaptive basis, but it can feel quite exhausting.
Think of how you’ve felt in your first six months in a new job. That’s a stressful period for many people as they learn new skills and procedures, and the cultural norms of their new workplace. Although you may be returning to your old job, a lot has changed, and it might be helpful to expect to feel the same type of adjustment stress. Give yourself the same grace and self-compassion you would if you were starting a new job or embarking on transition, like starting college or grad school.
2. Whenever you’ve avoided something, you’ll feel anxious about returning to it.
Imagine an elite gymnast who has been out for several months with an injury. They weren’t purposely avoiding training or procrastinating. They were benched because of their injury. Yet, when they return, they’re likely to feel a lot of anticipatory anxiety about performing moves they routinely performed before.
That’s how anxiety works, across the board. We feel anxious about anything we’ve “avoided” even if the break was externally imposed. If you’re a parent, you might find yourself feeling anxious about being separated from your child during the day, even if this was routine in your family before. Or, you may feel anxious about making small talk or managing other people’s personalities at work.
3. Social relationships and boundaries have changed.
Pre-pandemic, it’s highly unlikely you knew much about your coworkers’ health decisions. Now, you’d probably quite like to know who in your office is vaccinated and who isn’t. Pre-pandemic, your colleagues may never have seen your home or your children, but now they have, thanks to all the Zoom meetings.
As people return to the office, some coworkers will likely become influencers. They’ll lead office culture and norms in terms of how many Covid precautions are kept up, and how vigilantly. Other people may be ostracized. For example, if they’re someone who chooses not to vaccinate and to keep masking, when everyone else wants to take their masks off for good. This shakedown may make the preexisting pecking order and popularity contest of the office even more obvious. For example, if “cool” coworkers are eschewing their masks, going out to lunch, and acting completely as before, but “picky” coworkers are still masking and eating lunch at their desks.
Likewise, some coworkers may be thrilled to get back to the office and find it helps their productivity, whereas other people may be feeling the reverse. People’s circumstances and natures are different, so your perspective won’t be identical to someone else’s. If a leader or coworker is shouting from the rooftop about how we need to get back to the office to regain productivity and camaraderie, they’re probably overgeneralizing from their own perspective and experience.
For anyone worried about resuming their work and adjusting to the life post lockdown, here are some tips that may prove helpful.
1. Manage anxiety with preparation
Part of avoiding “all or nothing” thinking is being prepared so you can adjust your expectations and behavior when returning to the workplace.
For example, how can you prepare yourself to stay safe in public? Think about how you’ll manage your commute; what protective gear and cleaning supplies to keep on your person; how you’ll manage eating and drinking while at the workplace; and how you’ll interact with colleagues or clients. Even habits as simple as laying out your clothes the night before, packing your work bag in advance and bringing your own lunch can help you feel more in control, Tarry says. She also recommends you give yourself ample time in the morning so you don’t feel rushed to get out the door, which can contribute to anxiety.
Similarly, to put your mind at ease, ask your employer what safety precautions they’ll have in place, Benton says.
Your employer should have a plan for how many people will be onsite; how people will move throughout the facilities; what safety equipment and cleaning supplies will be available; whether masks will be required of employees and clients; how to maintain proper ventilation and air flow; and other precautions to ensure workers won’t be put at-risk when they return.
Having these conversations can help you feel more in control of the situation. You might learn that your employer has workers coming in on a staggered schedule, desks will be six feet apart, social distancing will be observed through the building, and face masks will be required and available onsite. If you learn your employer doesn’t have a plan for all of your concerns, you may be able to contribute your own ideas for a safer and less stressful return.
“Hopefully you have the kind of boss or employer where you can raise these issues and make some suggestions about what you might do as an office to be better protected,” Benton says. “If you don’t have a boss like that, you have to legitimately think how much risk you’re willing to take on.”
2. Accept the situation
For most of us, this is the first time in our lives where we are facing a situation that is forcing us to cut down on our social lives. Hence, knowing that things will be difficult for each one of us, can make one feel prepared for what is to come. Understanding that it is a tough time for everyone around the world and your colleagues at the workplace are also struggling to find hope in this phase of uncertainty, will go a long way to boost your mental status.
The more you are accepting of the situation, the less anxious you will become, as you resume your work. In such times, it is not possible to stay in our homes, forever. Thus, accepting the current situation and adjusting with the ‘new normal’ is the way forward.
3. Stay safe: Taking appropriate precautions
Lifting the restrictions under lockdown does not mean that we can go back to our normal lives. We still have to wash hands, wear masks, and maintain social distancing. Similarly, we still have to avoid shaking hands during meetings and hugging each other after closing a deal. Taking these precautions will not only help to alleviate our fears of the virus, but also contribute to ensuring the safety of ourselves and our colleagues at work.
Furthermore, before getting back to your jobs, ensure that your workplace is safe. Maintain a safe distance of at least two-meter from your colleagues. Make sure you keep washing your hands frequently and follow the appropriate health guidelines. Similarly, ensure that you and everyone else working with you wear face masks when they return to work. All these precautions will help you to curb your anxiety about contracting the virus to some extent.
4. Visualize situations in your head
Preparing for upcoming social events by role-playing specific worries or concerns with someone you trust, on paper or in your head.
if you have an upcoming walk planned with a friend or are about to meet them at the park, try to mentally plan your meetup and how you’d like it to go.
“Visualize your friend when you see them and what you will say. It may be awkward at first, especially as we are not able to hug or touch friends, but you will soon adapt to the new way of greeting a loved one.
Another strategy Shapiro suggests is to challenge internal negative thought patterns with a reversal thought, either before or during anxiety-provoking situations.
For example, if you’re going to an outing where you’ll be around new people, she says, “Instead of auto-thinking, ‘These people won’t like me and will make fun of me,’ try: ‘They’ve been stuck inside for months just like me. We’ll trade stories. They will like me and I’ll probably find one new friend.
5. Allow yourself to be scared
Even if it seems like everyone around you isn’t worried or scared to get back into the world, Shapiro says it’s acceptable to have your own reaction and anxieties about the situation.
“Remember, no one has ever been through anything like this in the modern world, so no one really knows how to do it ‘right.’ Even the experts don’t have all the answers, so it’s normal to have your own uncertainties and doubts. Socialize at your comfort level.
“You’re not obligated to do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable or puts you at risk. There are a lot of different factors that will affect when you feel it’s the best time to start venturing out. Think about your age, health history, quarantine situations, and even your own anxiety when taking that next step outside. Feelings of safety in the world validate some of our anxieties.
“There is so much unknown about what is ultimately safe, and some of our fears about being out in the world are actually warranted, so it’s a good idea to be thoughtful about who you are engaging with socially, and understand if they are [on the same page] as you are.
Share your feelings of panic and fear over social plans with those who are closest to you.
“You may feel slightly embarrassed about these feelings, especially if you are usually the life and soul of the party, but there’s no shame in feeling slightly overwhelmed by the changes, especially after so much time spent alone.
“I can guarantee that at least one of [your friends] will be going through the same thing and will be glad and relieved that you have spoken about it.
6. Practice self-care
Prioritizing your physical health, learning breathing exercises, developing self-reflective practices like therapy and journaling, and talking to friends and family about your worries are all practical parts of anxiety management,
“While we don’t have a playbook, we can rely on coming back to ourselves and the present moment, and making sure we have [reliable] spaces in our lives so we can navigate the spaces that feel out of our control. People who work proactively on their mental health are better equipped to handle the unknowns.
“It’s like doing emotional pushups, so when things get hard in the world, we have these core tools we can come back to that make us feel grounded.
“You might not be able to prepare for everything you’re going to encounter, but you can get your body and mind ready to handle difficult things beforehand. This will put you in a better position to navigate anything that comes your way.
7. Put down your gadgets: reduce your screen time
The amount of screen time you spend on browsing social media and news sites can lead to increased anxiety levels. Keeping ourselves updated with the latest headlines can indeed help us to become aware of the world where we live. However, we often fail to acknowledge the role that this habit of constantly checking news feeds plays, in increasing our anxiety levels.
8. Avoid discussing about Coronavirus
As the Coronavirus situation continues evolving, the number of affected cases is going to rise. While it is necessary to keep ourselves aware of the situation, it is wrong to keep worrying about the pandemic throughout the day. To prevent the anxiety resulting from continuous consumption of COVID related news, it is better to restrict any conversation or debate about the pandemic unless necessary.
9. Balance your work-life and ‘fun-life’
Consider it a point to schedule some breaks between your work hours. Though the pandemic won’t allow you to go out with your friends and attend fun events, there are other ways by which you can break the monotonous work-life. This may include simple activities like a short walk in the nearby park. Introducing the things that you truly enjoy in your daily routine can greatly help you to push down your anxiety levels, and act as ‘mind-boosters’ to lift you and make it easy for you to adjust with the ‘new normal’.
10. Talk to loved ones around you
Being open to your loved ones and discussing all your issues with them and seeking their opinion, is perhaps one of the best and easy methods to curb your anxiety levels. This not only helps you but also the other person with whom you are sharing your thoughts if they are also suffering from social anxiety. Talking to someone you trust helps you to clear your mind and make way for positive thoughts.
Take your symptoms seriously
Regardless of whether you feel anxious every day or even just once in a while, everyone tune in to their feelings and take their symptoms of anxiety seriously. In May, the United Nations warned that the coronavirus pandemic “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis” and called for substantial investment in support services. If you notice any changes to your body or mood, examine that and seek mental health support now through teletherapy, an employee assistance program or another provider to help you work through difficult feelings now.
“Your environment has a lot to do with chronic symptoms of anxiety that start seemingly out of nowhere, “For the first time in history, more people can see a provider anywhere in the nation.”