Rachel Campbell explores the butterflies accompanying stepping out into a post-coronavirus world.
Three months into lockdown and we are reading more books, painting more pictures, baking more banana bread. I’ve taken up knitting, I’ve up-cycled clothes, I’ve started running. The common variable between my new-found hobbies? They’re all done alone. On Zoom quizzes, nobody knows if I’m looking at them in the eye. I’ve taken a step back from social media as I’ve taken up yoga and cooking. Whilst the lockdown is allowing me time to myself, I’m also aware of the extent to which I’ve disconnected from the outside world, and the looming idea that I will have to (get to?) reconnect.
I’ve been reading Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet, a witty guide to taking a step back from the stress-inducing modern world, and realigning your priorities, as we’re constantly bombarded with options, choices, and the ability to do more. Of course, the lockdown has not been easy, and some have had a much worse time than me, but it has limited our choices in what we are able to do. For some of us, at least in this one sense, it can feel less overwhelming than the day-to-day life we were living pre-coronavirus. Whilst I don’t intend to romanticise a global pandemic, I do think it has allowed us to gain perspective on the fast-paced, market-oriented lives we live. I’ve been trying to find the balance of staying informed and politically aware, whilst also using this time to take a step back and reassess. However, it does feel as though going back to normal (or whatever the new normal will be) may be difficult for those of us who have become accustomed to a more introverted lifestyle which allows time for self-reflection and discourages interaction.
As the notion of returning to work becomes more of a reality, and the university is starting to plan what this academic year will look like come September, I’ve become aware of how tasks which were once menial may feel awkward and anxiety-inducing. The easy conversation with my retail colleagues about what we are doing at the weekend seems a world away, especially as, when we do return, we’ll wear masks and t-shirts exclaiming “two metres apart”. Even with my close friends who I still speak to regularly, I am finding it hard to imagine how we’ll feel the same ease around each other. Whilst I haven’t actively done anything to negatively affect my relationships, they aren’t being fed with in-person laughter, anecdotes and complaints about nothing. I tend to gravitate towards introverts like myself, and among my friends, there seems to be this conflict; the break from the hustle and bustle of the world we live in is welcome to an extent, but there is apprehension about how we will cope when we return to the busy, interactive lives we were once used to.
Personally, I struggle with walking into a new work-place, a new dance class, a new seminar group. I often shrink into myself and find it hard to say much at all for fear of saying the wrong thing. In lockdown, with not only no new people to meet, but not even my usual interactions, my skills of battling the voice in my head which tells me anything I say will sound foolish, have diminished. The idea of suddenly returning to my old life (though I know it won’t be identical) seems like throwing myself in at the deep end when I’m still waiting for a broken leg to heal. Panic attacks, for me, are often linked to feelings of embarrassment, and so, with this leave of absence from normal social interaction, I’m convinced this will heighten my anxiety, as I inevitably say or do the (in my eyes) wrong thing.
Looking into it, I’ve found it’s definitely not just me feeling anxious about returning to life after lockdown. Akanksha Bhatia, a writer and advocate for mental health, is someone who has struggled with anxiety for some time and put this particular situation well by saying: “Stepping out of the house, for someone with anxiety, is already something you overthink. You’ll have to get used to that all over again, because you've been desensitised.” Anxiety UK has introduced a section on their website on post-lockdown anxiety, with advice about how to combat it. One point I found useful was that we must give ourselves an adjustment period: “A phased return in the workplace might be just what you need in your personal life too.” A good piece of advice from Akanksha Bhatia was to try to continue at least one hobby you have started in lockdown, into the readjustment period, in order to maintain a routine and a sense of achievement which you may not immediately get elsewhere.
Ultimately, we will adjust to the new normal; the return of crowds, the new rules, the old day-to-day interaction. Humans are adaptive beings, and whilst some of us may struggle more than others, we will get there. In the meantime, we have to give ourselves time rather than berating ourselves for not finding seemingly simple tasks easy straight away.