As governments around Australia make cautious moves towards lifting COVID-19 restrictions, it’s time to start thinking about life beyond lockdown.
But even though many of us have spent weeks dreaming about the day that things go back to normal, Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar of the Black Dog Institute cautions that re-entry into the real world might not be all smooth sailing.
For more Black Dog Institute (BDI) resources to reduce the incidence of mental illness and empower everyone to live the most mentally healthy lives possible, visit the BDI Hub.
Adjusting to the new normal
We can expect to see lots of changes when we emerge into the world, from a favourite café that didn’t survive the shutdown to greetings between friends that now consist of a nod or a wave, rather than an effusive hug.
Practical activities like driving a car or catching a train may feel strange, and for many of us, the desire to pick up old hobbies and habits – a drink at the pub, a dinner party with friends and family – might be tinged with concern about whether it’s really wise to socialise in close contact with others.
But for others, the changes might be deeper. The unexpected nature of the pandemic and its sudden and intrusive arrival in our lives will leave some of questioning whether the world is still a safe place.
“The world might actually be a different place when we get out of this,” says Manicavasagar, a senior clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute who specialises in adult separation anxiety disorder.
“The fact that we’ve had a pandemic in our lifetime, for a lot of people that would shake their beliefs in the world, the stability of the world, that nothing bad can happen. It’s a shock.”
Financial and economic challenges
For those who have lost income or jobs, there are also practical concerns to grapple with – finding work, meeting financial commitments, applying for Centrelink benefits or negotiating with landlords and banks to manage rent, mortgages and credit card payments.
With predictions of up to 1.4 million job losses by the end of 2020, these financial pressures will be front and centre of many people’s lives for the foreseeable future and could have a significant impact on their mental health.
“A lot of things that people are going to be worrying about [will be economic issues] – their future, their career, their training. There are some very practical pressures that are going to drive some of this anxiety – it’s not all just about reintegrating into society,” Manicavasagar says.
A stronger sense of community
The good news is that if research tells us anything, it’s that shared experiences of stress can actually bring communities together in way we may not have experienced prior to COVID-19.
“When you read the academic literature on natural disasters, as horrible as they are, [in the aftermath] people help each other and there’s often a sense of shared humanity,” Manicavasagar says.
“The fact that we’re actually doing so well [in terms of flattening the curve of infection] indicates that we’re all trying to do the right thing for each other.”
Easing back into life after lockdown:
- Take it slowly – Simple things like doing the grocery shopping, driving a car or spending time with friends might feel strange as you move back into your post-lockdown life. Take note of how you feel and consider speaking to your GP if feelings of anxiety persist or worsen.
- Rebuild your relationships – It’s been a while since you’ve physically seen your friends and family members – and remember, they’ve changed as much as you have. Spend some time together processing the experience, rebuilding bonds and supporting one another as you move into the next phase of your relationship.
- Look for opportunities: The Federal Government is offering heavily subsidised undergraduate and postgraduate certificate courses for people who have been financially displaced by COVID-19. If you’re looking to enhance your current skillset or to retrain in a new field, a new qualification could help you move forward.
- Seek help early – Everyone reacts differently to change. Feelings of anxiety, difficult sleeping, changes to your appetite, irritability and bouts of crying are all signs you may need some extra support. Speak to your GP or visit the Black Dog Institute website for mental health advice and resources.
- Reflect on your experience – Rather than focusing on going ‘back’ to your old life, take some time to think about whether the lockdown experience could help you make positive changes going forward. Have you realised you want to work less, exercise more, make more effort to spend time with friends and family? Make a list of new habits you’d like to embrace and start implementing them one by one.
- Remember the advice – Wash your hands regularly, keep a safe distance from others and keep up with the rules as they change so you know what you can and cannot do. Remember these rules have been very effective at keeping the infection rate low in Australia.
Professor Vijaya Manicavasagar is a senior clinical psychologist at the Black Dog Institute and the author of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults.