Dealing with the anxiety of being set free

What happens when the lockdown is lifted? When it’s time to pack up our makeshift home workspaces and head back to the office, the lecture hall, or even — heaven forbid — into a crowded pub?

Will we cower at the thought of people invading our personal space? Will we flinch when a friend goes in for a loving hug, or asks for a sip of our drink? 

The answer, says psychologist Michael Noetel, is probably yes: the anxiety we experienced during the pandemic will still be present when we’re finally set free.  

“It’s fair to say that it will take a long time for people to adapt and go back to what we previously considered as normal,” says Dr Noetel, a research fellow at ACU’s Institute of Positive Psychology and Education.  

“Those who were always more careful about washing their hands and sharing drinks, it turns outs they were onto something, and there’s likely to be a period of people mirroring that type of behaviour.” 

Beyond the emergence of these germaphobic tendencies, the virus lockdown might have a lasting effect on our psychology. 

Even a short period of isolation can cause long-term anxiety, and it’s possible the uprising of fear prompted by the pandemic will survive long after the restrictions are lifted.   

“It is officially recognised … that unrelieved fear can lead to trauma,” writes Judith Hoare, author of The Woman Who Cracked the Anxiety Code. The pandemic, she adds, “will deliver casualties well beyond the body count.”

We commonly see this in Australia with bushfires and floods, where those directly affected continue to experience traumatic stress years after the event. 
However, Dr Noetel couches things in more positive terms. Where the death toll is relatively low, as it has been in Australia through the pandemic, the fallout is much less significant.  

“We’ve been extremely fortunate in Australia to escape the widespread casualties that have been seen in other countries, and that will likely mean that the overall psychological impact will be minimal,” he says. 

“Of course, if you had people close to you die from coronavirus, or you had it yourself and had a particularly bad case, you will likely experience some trauma in the short and medium-term. 

“But I’m optimistic that, as a society, we’ll rebound quite quickly from this, without too many detrimental psychological effects.” 

In early April, Dr Noetel and his colleagues revealed the findings of a study that gauged people’s behaviours and concerns related to the pandemic. 

The research found Australians were more anxious about wider societal issues than they were about catching the virus themselves.

“We found people were more worried about the health system being overloaded and the economy collapsing than they were about the things that might affect them personally,” says Dr Noetel, who was one of five Australian researchers to work on the global project.   

The loneliness of isolation might have deeply affected some people, but overall it was a relatively minor concern. 

“People are surprisingly robust to big problems like this,” he adds, “and when you know that a whole lot of other people are going through the same thing, you can deal with it more effectively than you might anticipate, and this has certainly been the case through the pandemic.”

Dr Noetel identifies three core areas of focus to help us ease back into life as restrictions are relaxed. We list them here. 

1. Take calculated risks

Throughout our lives, we tend to pursue the things that are important to us, even when they contain a degree of risk. 

“Every time we drive to work or to a class, there’s a chance we’ll get into an accident, and yet we continue to drive without really thinking about the dangers,” Dr Noetel says. 

“We do what we can to minimise the risks — we buy a safe car, use a seatbelt and abide by the speed limit — and that helps us to keep ourselves and others safe while easing any anxiety we might have about getting into an accident.

“The anxiety is still there, but we can effectively manage it and continue to function as normal.” 

During a pandemic, everyday things like going to the supermarket or visiting a busy medical practice become more risky than normal. 

We minimise the risks by taking precautions, like maintaining personal hygiene and observing social distancing. 

As the dangers of the virus subside and society slowly opens up again, we must not let anxiety overcome us.  

“I’m not at all invalidating the scope of the problem here, and how scary it is to have a global pandemic, but if you put things into context, right now in Australia, the risks of having any serious consequences as a result of coronavirus are modest,” Dr Noetel says. 

“We still need to take precautions to protect ourselves and our community as best we can, and if we continue to do this, we can transition back into society, while not letting our anxiety get in the way of a rich and meaningful life.”

2. Enjoy doing things differently

Secretly dreading a return to post-pandemic ‘normal’? You’re likely not alone. 

While much of the world bemoaned the fact they were stuck in lockdown, many others enjoyed the comforts of home, and revelled in the opportunity to work or study remotely.   

The good news? The pandemic has forced us to experiment with entirely new ways of living, working and studying, and some of the more positive changes will likely stay with us for good. 

There are signs, for example, that it will lead to a permanent shift towards more flexible working practices, a move that will be welcomed by many employees. And this may also be the case with schools and universities. 

Dr Noetel recently led a systematic review of video learning in higher education and found that — while some students benefitted from the structure of lectures and tutorials — those who combined regular classes with video learning had improved results.    

“Universities don’t have to choose between giving people online content and face-to-face anymore, because they now have the capacity to offer both,” he says. “Offering students flexibility can improve the way they respond, because it gives them a chance to learn in their own time and in their own way.” 

And what about those who simply enjoyed the safety and warmth of their isolation bubble?  

Dr Noetel concedes that for some, the thought of re-entering society will induce anxiety and discomfort. But he says most people will be relieved to see their friends, colleagues and classmates in person again. 

“Even those who prefer digital communication, who feel a bit more protected behind the safety of their screen, they generally won’t have too much trouble adapting back to normal … as long as they re-enter society slowly and gradually,” he says. 

“Like anything, there might be some awkwardness at first, but our brains are built for face-to-face contact, and most people will enjoy being back in front of people again.”

3. Don’t fret if you weren’t productive

So you went into the lockdown with a goal to get fit, or to learn something new. But as freedom beckons, you realise you actually went backwards. 

Don’t fret, says Dr Noetel. Getting through the lockdown is an achievement in itself. 

“We tend to go into periods like this with big expectations and a strong wind at our backs to change our behaviour, but that doesn’t always work out the way we planned,” he says.   

“That can have a hit to our self-esteem, but at the same time, every year, lots of people try to take up an exercise habit or set some other goal as a New Year’s resolution, and that doesn’t always happen.  

“These perceived failures can be discouraging, but in the long-run, they are incremental changes about how we feel about ourselves, they are not seismic changes that move us towards mental health issues.”

In other words, don’t feel too bad if you weren’t productive while in isolation. It’s not every day you’re faced with a global health crisis. 

And in the end, for most of us, the return to normality will be positive in the long run.  

“The increased anxiety and depression we’ve seen during the pandemic has been mostly because things that are important to people have been stifled,” Dr Noetel says. 

“The end of the lockdown will allow people to return to these things, so they go back to contributing through work, sport and community, and connecting with friends and family and those that matter to them.  

“We’re a pretty resilient bunch on average, and if we can draw the positives from this experience, we can carry some of those good things forward and take them into the future with us.”

*Source: Australian Catholic University