How to emotionally prepare for life after lockdown

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Coronavirus lockdown has led to a new phenomenon that has been coined FOGO (fear of going out), which is causing many of us to dread the prospect of returning to old routines when restrictions lift. Here we ask sophrologist Dominique Antiglio how to emotionally prepare for life after lockdown…

What is re-entry anxiety?

Re-entry anxiety is a form of stress associated with the fear of being unable, or not wanting to re-adapt to previously established routines and environments i.e. going back to ‘normal’ – this can be in relation to a return to work or a return to a way of living. In the instance of lockdown, it is a return to both.

It is exacerbated by a fear of ‘not belonging’, feeling like we’re unable to adapt quickly enough, or even questioning our ability to perform and keep up. This can really impact our confidence, self-identity and mental health, and can contribute to the feeling of isolation and loneliness.

Fears associated with re-entry anxiety can range from the stress of commuting to and from work, the dread of being overburdened with work, concern about returning to a toxic work environment, to fear of busy crowds and not feeling adequately protected in our environment, or generally feeling unable to keep up with the pace of change and enforced social measures.

The thing to remember is this is anxiety is totally normal, especially after having lived through three months of deep change to our daily lives, which has totally disrupted our work, family and social lives.

Why may people feel they aren’t ready to leave lockdown?

Lockdown has been an accelerator for people to rework their priorities in life and work. Many feel their previous daily lives were too intense and what it was an unsustainable way of working, so they are naturally reluctant about returning to these routines. Many are also considering career changes that reflect these new priorities, so a return to work goes against that thought process. A key learning is the realisation that it’s possible to live differently. Remote connections, particularly with work, are possible for example, so this has opened up the possibilities for us moving forward.

The time lost and effort or stress experienced in the commute to and from work is also another factor that doesn’t excite people, especially when coupled with a real health concern – there is real anxiety about a second wave.

Some people who have been working from home may actually be exhausted by the rhythm of lockdown. Some report that they have never worked harder or for longer due to the pressure placed on them by companies to perform during this tough time. So re-entering when they’re already so exhausted conjures fears about potentially burning out.

Furthermore, many people have found strength and solace in the safety of their immediate bubbles and enjoyed life at a slower pace.

What are the signs to look out for?

Signs to look out for include consciously withdrawing from socialising, potentially under or overeating as a form of comfort at home, perhaps increasing alcohol intake to compensate for the stress of these thoughts, procrastination in returning to work when it has been deemed safe and a reduction in overall productivity. Also, you might notice a growing propensity to lash out i.e. reacting instead of responding, as you become more irritable or feel tense with those around you. All these actions are the result of stress and fear manifesting in the body.

Physiologically, the body remains in a heightened state of ‘fight or flight’ or panic mode. In some more extreme circumstances, you might even experience shallow breathing, feeling tight in the chest, tension in the body, lethargy, and difficulty sleeping at night.

Photo: Dominique Antiglio

Tips for dealing with re-entry anxiety

1. Cultivate the courage to change what is driving the anxiety

If you are coming up against real hurdles with your anxiety, use this transition time as your opportunity to verbalise it. Everybody – your family, boss, colleagues and company – will have been affected one way or another, so it’s an opportune and appropriate time to share your thoughts, insights, learning, wants and needs. In fact, companies are actively welcome feedback during this time, so be confident about making clear what your needs are at work, how change can be beneficial to the company, and put boundaries in place where you need to. This could take shape in the form of delegating workload when it gets too busy to handle, or heading home at a certain time so you’re not working long hours. Verbalising your thoughts can help to build your confidence and give you back a sense of control when everything else may be chaotic. This is a healthy approach to managing the anxiety – nobody should be going back onto auto-pilot to exactly what they were doing before.

2. Try not to let your mind run away with thoughts

One of the best techniques you can implement to keep this anxiety at bay is to make the effort to stay in the present moment, the reason being that this form stress and anxiety focuses on the unknown and uncertainty. Once the mind latches onto these fears, thoughts can escalate very quickly and you could end up catastrophising about something that hasn’t even happened, which causes a lot of unnecessary stress. Nobody knows how this will unfold, but we also never know this in everyday life anyway – pandemic or not. Therefore, the perception that something could go terribly wrong tomorrow is something to watch and be careful of.

To help you stay in the present moment, try practicing Sophrology – a form of dynamic meditation that uses calming breathing techniques, movement, visualisation and grounding to bring you into presence quickly and effectively.

Here’s a Sophrology technique called The Pump to help you release pent-up stress and anxiety when your mind starts to run away or catastrophise:

– Stand tall, close your eyes, allow your arms to fall by your sides

–  Mentally locate where in the body you feel the stress, anxiety or tension, and clench your fists

–  Exhale through your mouth, take a deep breath in through your nose, and hold the breath

–  Now ‘pump’ both your shoulders up and down until you need to breathe out – this pumping action helps to oxygenate the brain

– As you exhale, allow your clenched fists to relax, visualising all your tension and anxiety draining out through your fingertips

– Repeat the process for as long as you need to release any lingering agitation

3. Have an anchor or a ‘constant’ at home or work that you reminds you of routine

As creatures of habit, we crave consistency and routine, so returning to an environment where norms no longer apply, working practices have changed, not all work colleagues are present, communication and interaction are at a distance or digitised, can throw us off our sense of ‘belonging’ – we might even start to question our ability to perform at work. So, having an anchor that we can return to – e.g. making a cup of tea around the same time, going for a short walk during the day, finding 10 minutes for yourself in a meeting room to practice some calming breathing – will help you create a sense of routine and make you feel more in control during a time of change

4. Keep a gratitude journal

Getting into the habit of being grateful for all the wonderful things you have around you is a brilliant way of counteracting the anxiety. Each morning, by simply writing down at least one thing (or three things or more ideally!) that you are grateful for that day is going to remind you of the best things in life even when the anxiety may be making you feel like your worst. And when you feel like you might be dwelling on the anxiety, consciously try to flip that thought so instead, you can dwell on the things you are grateful for instead.

5. Don’t rush it!

Going back to work doesn’t mean you now need to play catch-up. The fear of not being able to keep up may be a factor behind your anxiety, but let’s reframe this as a time for questioning and learning, taking the time to do things well and efficiently instead of quickly. Doing this allows you to take pride in your work, and if you care about what you are doing, you can become less fearful of it. Trust that there will be a certain level of perspective that we all need to gain from this, and that perspective will only come with time – so there’s no need to rush. Look after yourself and look after your lifestyle, so you can be in the spirit of change in the most positive way instead of feeling like you’re just reacting to it at every opportunity.

Dominique Antiglio is a sophrologist at BeSophro clinic and author of best-selling book The Life-Changing Power of Sophrology.

Main image: Shutterstock

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