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Coping with anxiety as COVID-19 restrictions ease

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While the easing of public health restrictions is a big milestone and something to celebrate, it’s also a huge shift in what we have become used to. Many people are surprised to find they have mixed feelings or find it tough as lockdowns and restrictions lift.  

However, this might make more sense than we realise at first.  

Why do easing restrictions cause anxiety? 

  • The pandemic increased levels of depression, anxiety and stress across Australia, and caused distress for many people already living with mental health issues, including eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder. In other words, after recent challenges you, like many others, may have experienced flare-ups in symptoms or feel more unwell, and may have trouble adjusting. 
  • During most of the pandemic, we were told that it is unsafe to be physically close to others, including loved ones. As you start to consider more in-person socialising, your internal alarm bells might be going off - telling you that public spaces and people are unsafe.
  • If you also have chronic health issues, you may need to be cautious of catching the virus, and have to balance this risk with the benefits of restrictions easing. 
  • If you experience distress triggered by people or public places, restrictions may have been a relief, providing a legitimate reason to avoid triggering situations. However, avoidance usually increases anxiety in the longer term and can make it harder to adjust to restrictions easing. 

Tips to cope with anxiety as restrictions ease 

1. Self-kindness

You might notice a range of responses to restrictions easing, including joy and celebration in the people around you. It’s important to remember that everyone will react differently, and that your thoughts and emotions are valid. It’s okay to feel anxious about restrictions easing, socialising or travelling again.  

So if you experience any self-criticism around your response to lockdown lifting, try reminding yourself that you are living through an unprecedented situation. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you. You are having a normal response to extreme circumstances.

2. Keep your lockdown coping strategies (if they help) 

Restrictions might mean you found coping strategies or routines that you would not have normally found. These ways of coping could still be beneficial. After all, they helped you get through a really challenging time.  

Have a think about the strategies and routines you would like to continue, ones that give you a sense of stability, purpose, relaxation or fun. For example, if you started going for a walk each morning in lockdown, and found this helpful, try to keep it up.  

It could also help to think about bringing back habits that you enjoyed before lockdown, that you haven’t been able to access. Perhaps, having a coffee in your local café each morning, or taking part in community groups. 

3. Go at your own pace

Try making a list of the different activities that increase your anxiety as restrictions ease, and order them from least to most distressing. It’s likely that catching up with a friend at home is going to be less stressful than going to a large social event.  

As you go out into the world, start with the activity or situation that causes you the least distress before taking on more challenging ones. This gives you the chance to get used to that anxiety in response to the outside world again, and practice your strategies to manage it.  

Part of going at your own pace is saying no. If people are pressuring you to do more than you feel comfortable doing, or to break restrictions, it’s ok to set your boundaries. If it’s helpful, you can suggest an alternative that works for you, like catching up at another time or one-on-one.  

4. Try to focus on the positives

What are you looking forward to as restrictions ease? Perhaps there are people you have missed or health professionals you would like to see in person. Or maybe you can work from an office again and see colleagues, while still having some days where you work from home.  

Taking some time to think about the positives of easing restrictions can help with anxiety. And it’s normal to feel both excited and anxious at the same time.  

As restrictions ease, the important thing is to take new situations at your own pace and figure out what works for you. Friends, helplines, counselling and mental health professionals can support you and assist you to take on new challenges.  

Good luck, and go gently! 

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