Adapting to the New Normal as Restrictions Ease

Many of the Covid-19 restrictions that have affected our lives for the past 16 months came to an end in England yesterday, including rules on social distancing. Here, Dr Alastair Pipkin, Lecturer in Psychology at the University and a Clinical Psychologist, explores the anxieties people may be feeling and offers his tips on how we might counteract those and adapt to the new normal:

Adapting to the New Normal as Restrictions Ease

While the easing of lockdown restrictions is an exciting prospect for many, many people may be experiencing increased anxiety or stress as we return to some sense of normality, such as returning to crowded events like stadiums, campus, workplaces, or busy bars. Since humanity began, it has been hard wired into our brains that human contact is (and has been) necessary for our survival, and any disruption or loss of this is perceived as a threat. All of the facts about the transmission of the coronavirus have somewhat reversed this; now, being around others is a potential threat to our health and the health of our loved ones, and social closeness has at times been against the law during the pandemic. People may therefore be experiencing threat for both the disruption to social contact, and now for the return of social contact. Here are some tips to consider if you are finding this to be part of your experience:

  • ‘Mindfully’ noticing our thoughts and feelings can help us to observe our thoughts without being consumed by them for a moment, which is a helpful first step before deciding what to do about them. What are the themes in your thought content and how are you feeling as we start to emerge from lockdown restrictions? Can you identify where in your body you experience this? What does your thought content suggest about your main concerns (e.g. fear of catching the virus/transmitting it to a loved one, fear of not knowing how to socialise after so long, excitement to re-engage in hobbies…)? You can find free Mindfulness practice resources on Youtube and the NHS website.
  • Anxiety and stress are physical sensations in the body caused by our brain’s threat system being activated and various hormones being released (e.g. feeling tense, changes to breathing rate, heart palpitations). We may be experiencing this in relation to social contact, or indeed many other challenges raised by the pandemic. The more we can notice this reaction and engage in soothing strategies, the more we can engage the front part of the brain to manage our feelings. One technique to try is ‘square breathing’ – draw around a square in your mind while breathing in for 4 seconds, so that one side of the square is one second, hold it for 1-2 seconds, and then repeat while you breathe out for 4 seconds. This can send a message of safety to the brain and help reduce the threat response. Mind UK have some additional strategies.
  • Our threat systems will scan for threat and will try to avoid it. This has been and will continue to be necessary to reduce the actual threat of the virus, but sometimes anxiety can lead us to over-use avoidance strategies. Are there things that you want to do but are actively avoiding? Consider breaking it down into smaller, achievable steps (e.g. meeting in smaller groups first, smaller venues before bigger ones). This can make it feel less overwhelming and can build confidence over time. The Get Self Help website, which provides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy self help and therapy resources, has strategies to overcome anxiety and avoidance. 
  • It is important to consider your own boundaries – a third of respondents from an AnxietyUK survey said that they would prefer to remain at home, so it is important to focus on activities which are meaningful and helpful to you rather than feeling you ‘should’ be doing certain things. The pandemic has raised opportunities to re-evaluate what is important to us, and this can persist even as restrictions begin to lift.
  • Research shows that having a sense of shared experience can alleviate some of the loneliness and distress caused by lockdown, and the same will apply to our feelings now. Reaching out to trusted friends, family members or sources of support and sharing any anxieties or stress regarding lockdown measures lifting can be helpful. There are and there will be others feeling a similar way. You can also self-refer to local mental health services for concerns that persist or disrupt your day to day life or students can seek support from our Student Support Services.
  • Research from other countries, including from Wuhan, has suggested that stress reduces and well-being improves following lockdown measures easing. This gives us hope that, although stress and anxiety may still be understandable reactions to lockdown restrictions, we may continue to see improvements in well-being as we move into the next phases of lockdown restrictions easing.

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