Gillian Roddie writes about our collective mixed emotions at the lifting of restrictions, and readjusting to life after lockdown…[restrict]
Since March, the narrative around the psychology of pandemics has overwhelmingly been geared towards how to maintain our mental health during lockdown. How to stay connected with Zoom calls, how to flex our creativity with crafts and baking goods, and how to seek solace in this, too, passing.
For months we’ve been told how to get through lockdown until we see an end on the horizon, and now that it’s here…What then?
Much less has been discussed about our emergence from these (yes, I’m going to say it) strange and unprecedented times, and the impact that these months may have had on us. There’s an assumption that we’re counting down the days to normal resumption of service, but is that really the case?
When the news of the Pfizer vaccine was first announced on November 9, I was impressed at the speed of the science, but also felt… strange and unsettled. Irritated, too, that the ground I’d been working very hard to steady over the last few months had started to shift again. And I wasn’t alone.
A highly rigorous survey on my Instagram account showed me that – out of a couple of thousand responders – 70% felt unsure about the news of an impending revert to “normality”. The lifting of restrictions will of course bring a welcome reopening for businesses and livelihoods brought to their knees over the last few weeks of shutdown. But it is also likely to bring a significant amount of anxiety.
While we suffered through online quizzes and grappled with bread cultures in the springtime of Lockdown 1, the days were getting longer and the sunshine facilitated front porch cocktails with neighbours (just me?). We hoped that this would all be over any day now, and the sense of togetherness was tangible and reassuring.
During the summer we were given respite from restrictions, but not relief, and September 1st saw a return of daily cases into triple figures. The naivety that helped us hope in the truth of that promise was long gone this time around, and we knew from the outset that we had a whole season of Covid-19 closures to deal with.
Somewhere along the line I feel I’ve forgotten how to interact with real humans on an everyday basis.
On rare occasions I meet a friend – as restrictions permit – for a brief walk outside, but my social circle has shrunk to a few carefully chosen people whom I know are on the same wavelength as I am around Covid. Anyone I would consider a hugger or toucher, something I heartily embraced figuratively and literally pre-pandemic, I find myself reluctantly avoiding. Crowded spaces hold as much appeal as dropping myself into a volcano, and at this point I’m assuming that if I ever go to a pub again it will be between the hours of 2 and 3pm before retreating to the safety of home.
I asked Joe O’Brien, trainee health psychologist and currently completing his Professional Doctorate in Health Psychology what his thoughts were on the lockdown emergence. “We’ve nothing to go on, the readjustment will be very interesting”. Interesting, terrifying, pot-ayto, po-tahto. “People are on edge because of uncertainty, just as with lockdown, and that uncertainty causes fear.” Joe says. “We’ll be learning to tolerate with or be ok with uncertainty”. I consider the prospect of navigating yet more shifts in mindset and a massive wave of empathy washes over me for the 70% of people in my highly rigorous survey who share my unsureness. “People will need to figure out what their boundaries are but also how their needs will be met”.
I asked Joe was he concerned about the possibility of a divisive gap appearing between the people who relished a return to normality and those who were finding it more challenging? But he’s of the opinion that just as we can treat the fears that feed into a phobia, similar exposure therapy on an informal level will likely help people to re-emerge and re-engage before too long.
Humans are ultimately very resilient creatures, we’ll all catch up eventually.
I posed a similar question to Professor Shane O’Mara, Professor of Experimental Brain Research in Trinity College and author of the brilliant Brain Pizza newsletter: if social anxiety is to be expected following the emergence of lockdown, can we ever expect to move beyond that? “What succeeded the Spanish Flu in 1918?” he asked me as I struggled with my Junior Cert History memories. “The roaring twenties! Commercial radio appeared, cinema became widespread, we socialised like never before”. So we can expect 2022 to be one long year of partying, I suggest? “Well if I had any money I’d be investing in stocks of party venues…”.
And while it was said jovially, there’s a fundamental truth of human behaviours here: following the first World War there was a decade of economic growth and prosperity, and the Black Death pandemic in the mid 14th Century led to the Renaissance. Shane echoes the ‘resilience of humans’ sentiment, and as a zoologist-by-training myself I’m only too aware that we’re arguably the most bounce-backable of all the animal kingdom thanks to our big brains, but how do we reconcile this with the uncertainty and fear that we might be feeling in these moments?
Although this year has been strange and challenging in more ways than we wish to count, Shane emphasizes that one thing we can be certain of is our fundamental need as humans for connectivity and socialisation, and this will ultimately prevail. In the short-term we may find it tough to be in groups or crowded spaces, but – coupled with widespread vaccination – we will inevitably ring in a new era of society. We will celebrate again.
I asked Niamh Connolly, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and founder of themindgym.ie if she had any practical advice about navigating the uncertainty ahead. She said that our past behaviour would be a really good indicator of future coping. “Look back at how you got on over Covid. Did you adapt? Did you look after yourself? Did you indulge in self care?” And have a non-critical look at what you got right, or less right, and think about how you could improve on that. “This is still an opportunity, there are still ways of managing this uncertainty. It’s the same stuff… are you talking to people? Are you eating properly? Are you getting your night’s sleep? The foundation elements are first.”
She suggests again that this is an opportunity presenting itself, that no matter our experiences of Covid it’s a chance to assess our mindsets.”What can I take from this? What did I learn from this that I didn’t know before? What strengths and resilience did I surprise myself with?” And where mental health is concerned Covid has created something very positive – our challenges with our head health and wellbeing have been normalised in a huge way, the stigma and shame has been chipped away at, allowing us to speak more freely about it. We can use the transitory period as a chance to take stock, reflect and actively navigate the continuing uncertainty more mindfully and with purpose. We talk about the concept of post-traumatic growth, and that for some people the Covid experience will signal a period of immense personal development.
Restrictions will begin to lift within the next few days, and our long journey towards “normality” will begin. But just as history tells us that humans are ultimately resilient to traumatic experiences, it also tells us we have a habit of thriving after it. Perhaps this is just the start of the Roaring TwentyTwenties, and you are about to achieve an evolution of the self spurred on by challenges you’ve repeatedly had to face this year. The uncertainty isn’t over just yet, but it presents an uncomfortable opportunity to reflect and plan. And despite the difficulties, the worst part of lockdown might be not learning from this unprecedented experience.
But please, no more Zoom quizzes. Ever.