Post-lockdown anxiety – a real ‘thing’ or all in our heads?

A big congratulations to each and every one of us – we’ve managed to get through the last few months of life in lockdown. The restrictions are now easing, life is starting to return to some sort of normality and you can finally get to the hairdressers to get that mane tamed. Hoorah! We should all be feeling on top of the world, right?

Contrary to this notion, it seems however, that a significant number of us are suffering from what is being termed ‘post-lockdown anxiety.’  This is not a formal diagnosis, rather a phrase coined by the mental health charity Anxiety UK, to describe symptoms of anxiety coincident with emergence from lockdown. Google ‘post-lockdown anxiety’ and over 5 million results appear, with content published on a range of news & magazine platforms (including Vogue and Marie Claire) and various health and well-being websites. Definitely sounds like a real ‘thing’ then.

So, how big an issue is this, what are the symptoms and what can be done about it?

How big an issue is post-lockdown anxiety?

While it’s too early to give definitive figures, mental health experts are describing this as an emerging phenomenon. Only time will tell how many people are affected and how seriously. There are, nevertheless, growing numbers of social media posts discussing concerns about life after lockdown, and a recent UK survey by the Office for National Statistics found almost half (49.6%) of the population having high levels of anxiety. The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has also reported increasing numbers of patients with anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms. The RCGP is clearly very concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, as it has created specific resources for family doctors helping patients to come to terms with the pandemic and its aftermath.

Articles on this subject that include contributions from psychologists, all state it is natural that anxiety should be triggered as we emerge from lockdown, and the reasons are multi-factorial. Uncertainty for the future and forced changes to daily life, coupled with fear of catching the virus can cause stress, feelings of a lack of control and an overwhelming perception of threat. We’ve also been bombarded with the ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’ message, so for some, the thought of leaving the house can be a huge concern. Additionally, others have enjoyed the slower pace of life of the past few months and have no desire to return to the way things were before March.

What are the symptoms of post-lockdown anxiety?

As is the case with other anxiety disorders, sufferers can experience a number of physical and psychological symptoms. According to BUPA, the following may be signs of post-lockdown anxiety:

  1. Feeling worried or stressed about the future
  2. Difficulty sleeping
  3. Feeling tired, irritable, or having trouble concentrating
  4. Racing heart (palpitations)
  5. Stomach cramps
  6. Shortness of breath or breathing quickly
  7. Sweating
  8. Overthinking and excessive rumination
  9. Holding yourself back from doing things you’d normally do because of amplified fears

Other symptoms that are specific to the current situation that might be indicative of anxiety are constantly checking the news for information about COVID-19 or lockdown developments, excessive hand washing, or feeling preoccupied with distressing thoughts about catching or passing on the virus.

What you can do to help yourself

While there is no particular treatment for post-lockdown anxiety, both the UK government and large health organisations are taking the psychological challenges associated with this pandemic seriously. The NHS mental health webpages ‘Every Mind Matters’ (https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/) contain tips for helping people deal with anxiety about COVID-19, and a raft of resources for anxiety in general. The UK Government has also published similar content (available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-guidance-for-the-public-on-mental-health-and-wellbeing/guidance-for-the-public-on-the-mental-health-and-wellbeing-aspects-of-coronavirus-covid-19). The Mental Health Foundation (www.mentalhealth.org.uk) have likewise produced COVID-19 specific resources, including guidance titled ‘Looking after your mental health as we come out of lockdown.’

In addition to referring to more general sources of help and information about anxiety (including the NHS, or your GP), the following might also be useful for dealing with some of the specifics of post-lockdown anxiety:

  1. Manage your news consumption – If what you are reading, seeing or listening to is making you feel anxious, then just switch it off, or restrict how often you check the news. Try to stick to news sources that are reputable, as there’s a lot of misleading and incorrect information out there that might do nothing but fuel your anxiety.
  2. Practice accepting what you can’t control and focus on what you can – Given the current state of uncertainty, it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious. There is so much beyond our control, but practicing acceptance can help to release these stresses and free up mind space.
  3. Make your own well-being a priority – It’s well documented that taking care of your physical health is beneficial for your mental health. Try to add exercise to your daily routine, even if it’s just going for a walk outside. A change of environment and fresh air have long been lauded for their salutary effects, and there’s even some evidence Vitamin D (from exposure to sunshine) can have immune-system boosting properties. Keep your diet healthy, limit alcohol intake and make sure you get a decent night’s sleep.
  4. Focus on the present – With the COVID-19 situation changing on a daily basis, the longer term outlook and how our lives will be affected are increasingly unclear. Bring your mind back to the present moment, to the here and now. A daily dose of mindfulness meditation can be helpful or try other activities that work for you.
  5. Talk to someone you can trust – If you share your thoughts and feelings with someone you are comfortable with then this can help you to feel supported and understood. What’s more, the chances are at the moment that whoever is ‘lending an ear’ is feeling the same. If you have specific concerns about returning to work, then voice them by speaking to your line manager or colleagues. You certainly won’t be the only one.
  6. And most importantly, be kind to yourself. The world is in a state of flux, and it’s hardly surprising we are feeling a mixture of emotions at the moment. What’s important is you recognise this and you are compassionate to yourself. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend.

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The take home messages are that firstly, it’s ok to be worried about this next phase of adjustment to life, and secondly, there are plenty of resources to help you do something about it…

If you are struggling to cope it’s important you get support. Visit https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/urgent-support/ for details of organisations that can help, and make sure you book an appointment to see your GP as soon as possible if you need to.