‘Anyone else feeling just a little overwhelmed at the prospect of all this additional out and aboutness – even though we’ve been yearning for it?’
Journalist Alison O’Connor posed this question on Twitter recently. Obviously no one wants the pandemic to continue, but the fact that more than 1,500 people liked her tweet confirmed that many people are indeed nervous now that many aspects of everyday life are gradually returning to normal.
Back-to-normal hesitancy, re-entry anxiety – call it what you will, but there are many reasons why people may be feeling a little anxious right now.
Firstly, long-standing health-related anxiety isn’t going to vanish overnight. Even after vaccination, some people will find it difficult to let go of the fearful and cautious behaviours that they have adopted over the last 15 months.
Health fears aside, many people will have habituated to a new way of life during lockdown. Many things that seemed abnormal 15 months ago have become normal today. The extraordinary has become ordinary. We are creatures of habit, so re-establishing old habits and behaviours – even ones you may have been looking forward to – may initially feel strange and uncomfortable.
Then there is the fact that some people genuinely prefer their pandemic routines to their pre-pandemic lifestyle. You may not miss the long work commute. You may have enjoyed spending more time with your family and less time with difficult bosses and work colleagues. You may have saved more money. You may have realised that you didn’t actually like many aspects of your old life and that you are in no hurry to return to routines that weren’t really working for you.
Then there is the reality that the pandemic has been such a societal leveller. As humans, we often negatively compare our lives to the lives of others. Some people’s lives may seem more social, more fun-filled, more exciting.
For much of the pandemic, however, everyone has been in the same boat. There has been no normal to live up to. Nights out in bars and restaurants, hotel breaks, live music venues and festivals, foreign holidays – all gone. Now that world is opening up again; as it does, old insecurities and feelings of inferiority, resentment or envy may resurface.
Clearly, there are a multitude of reasons as to why different people may feel conflicted right now. As already noted, some people may have been happier in their pandemic routines for perfectly good reasons and may have resolved to make permanent changes to how they live. Good for them.
Others may be looking forward to getting their old lives back whilst at the same time being a little wary in some regards. Normal life involves living with small everyday risks, but we have become profoundly uncomfortable with risk over the last year. It’s understandable that many people may feel a bit institutionalised, but remember that we are an adaptable species. You will adjust.
Other people may have become used to their own company over the last year so they may find they are more socially anxious than they used to be. Increased social interactions may seem stressful right now, but try to avoid avoidance. Avoidance brings short-term relief but it increases long-term anxiety. Remember that social isolation saps confidence and has negative long-term mental health implications.
Life has been very stressful for many over the last year, but it has also been simpler in many ways. Many people are relieved by the lack of choices. Our worlds have become smaller, and smaller can sometimes can seem safer.
However, the reality is a certain amount of stress and discomfort is good for us. We all need to give ourselves a gentle push on occasions, to get out of our comfort zones. If we don’t, we stagnate and life goes stale.
Making difficult choices can be scary, but the solution isn’t to eliminate choice. Freedom can be scary, but the solution isn’t to imprison yourself.
There’s an old line that ships in harbour are safe, but that’s not what ships are built for. And it’s true. Venturing out of harbour in the coming months may seem scary at times, but it’s what you – we – were built for.
(First published in Southern Star on 27/05/2021)