The rise of post-lockdown anxiety

Why are people feeling anxious about the lifting of lockdown and what can they do about it

With England’s pubs, shops and restaurants reopening today, there is a mixture of excitement and anxiety for people across the country at the prospect of being one step closer to normal life.

In fact, 37% are looking forward to return to normal life and 36% are more uneasy about it, according to data from Anxiety UK.

The mental health of the nation in lockdown

For many people the last year has been terrible for mental health with almost half (49.6%) of people reporting high anxiety in March 2020 according to the Office of National Statistics. And even after the initial shock of lockdown, anxiety levels remained elevated compared with the end of 2019.

For those who already suffered from a mental health condition, it has been particularly tough.

Luka, a social media executive, attributed the slump in her mental health to the lack of distraction and isolation in lockdown.

She said: “I think I had too much time alone with my thoughts, I think that’s the main thing, we don’t have the level of distraction that you normally might.”

This sentiment was echoed by Dorothy who suffered from depression and anxiety before the pandemic.

Not everyone has found that the pandemic has made anxiety worse. In fact, for Rosa* who was diagnosed with OCD when she was four years old and has had to manage daily obsessions and compulsions, lockdown has been a welcome break.  

She said: “Being in lockdown has actually been really great, because I don’t even have to get ready, I don’t need to go anywhere, take my stuff anywhere, I don’t have to check ten times if my door is closed if I lock my door when I leave the house, so it has been really relaxing.”

With lockdown restrictions easing, Rosa has to begin managing her compulsions and obsessions again.

“I am actually really anxious for life to start again because I don’t know how much harder it will be for me now after having paused a year to start again with all those compulsions and obsessions. I am just afraid that all my work has been undone.”

However, even for those for whom lockdown has had a negative impact, returning to life as normal is still causing anxiety.

What are people worried about?

According to new research from Anxiety UK the reasons people are feeling anxious can be broadly split into a few distinct groups; social pressures (46%), busy public spaces (30%), using public transport (20%) and returning to work (20%).

Dave Smithson, operations officer at Anxiety UK said: “Understandably, as it is early days, we are being encouraged to still be careful, wash our hands, keep our distance etc. Those messages tell those who have a fear or have a worry is it really safe to go out yet? It’s playing into those worries and fears that those people have.”

Counselling Directory member Shelley Treacher said: “We are not only afraid for our physical safety, but also our psychological. We are concerned that we will lose the time and space we've enjoyed in isolation, to the demands of the more interactive World. Furthermore, we are anxious about connecting socially again because, having found sanctuary in our own company, we fear conflict, rejection and the awkwardness of socialising again. It's normal to feel this way after such a long period of isolation.”

This is Dorothy’s biggest concern: “With lockdown lifting, obviously, it makes it seem you have to have loads of plans in place and right now I don’t really have concrete plans. That makes me really anxious, especially if everything opens and on social media I see everyone having fun but I haven’t actually planned to do anything.”

It is also Luka’s.

Amy, a mental health first aider, said she was also worried about friends planning activities and events.

She said: “Obsessively planning is one of the things I have learned from the last year I want to do less. Over planning is stressful and futile because you don’t know what the future holds and I want to leave things open to chance but you can’t when everyone around you is frantically booking things.”

As the data suggests socialising is not the only reason for anxiety on the easing of lockdown and for Julian, a PR agency account director, his concerns are around the return to work.

He said: “I am apprehensive of the changes to my now normal working day. Living over an hour from the office, I will be returning to a commute that involves a bus, train and possibly a tube. All of which are typically rammed and close contact is unavoidable.”

How to deal with the return to normal

Dave from Anxiety UK said it is understandable that people are a bit wary about the return to normal especially considering the stresses of the last year and the continued uncertainty.

He said: “Our advice is to take it easy, take it one day at a time and don’t feel under pressure from others, from friends and family to do things you don’t feel ready for. Go at your own pace.”

Both Rosa and Luka were both planning on following this advice.

Rosa said: “I am not going to go to the club straight away, I think I am going to take some time. I am not going to try and do ten different things on one day but I am going to have one project a day, see how that goes. If that goes well the next day, I will have two projects.”

Luka added: “I think I am just going to have to just not give in to the peer pressure and just take it slowly. For example, my sister has booked one drinks and for now that’s enough.”

Additionally, Counselling Directory member Beverley Hills, advised: “When we catastrophise we project into the future and see the worst-case scenario, so pulling back from that and staying in the now can help with the surge of emotions. It could also be a case of remaining vigilant without ramping up your anxiety and taking personal responsibility for your own PPE.”

If you are feeling anxious about the easing of lockdown and would like further advice, you can listen to the full advice from Anxiety UK here:

Other useful links include:

* some names have been changed