How to cope with 're-entry anxiety'

The pandemic has disrupted our lives in many ways, but we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel. Gosia Bowling, Prevention Lead of Emotional Wellbeing, explains why we may have experienced a crisis of confidence, and how we can stay resilient as lockdown measures continue to ease.

During lockdown, many common sources of meaning in life, particularly contact with others, have been eroded. So it’s understandable that many of us might feel isolated, lacking purpose, or as if we’re on an ‘emotional rollercoaster’. Some of us may have even experienced a crisis of confidence – second guessing our decisions and competencies, as well as questioning how we’re perceived by others.

When lockdown was initially announced, none of us knew what to expect and we hadn’t experienced prolonged isolation from others before. We blindly entered a strange period – a bit like the time between Christmas and New Year, where nobody knows what day it is, but without our friends and families or any of the festivities. After more than three months of this, our ability to find meaning in life has been affected, leading to more unhelpful shifts in our thinking and mood.

The simple activities we engage in, with and around others – such as travelling to work or going to the gym – are important because they provide structure and a joint sense of purpose. Removing these activities has created a ‘meaning gap’, which has led to a lack of self-confidence and increased worry for many of us.

How do we create meaning in life?

Evidence shows that we experience meaning by doing activities that fulfil a set of three psychological needs:

  • Autonomy – the ability to feel in control of one’s life and act according to core values
  • Competence – the ability to experience a sense of mastery (feel like you are good at things)
  • Relatedness – the capacity to interact with others.

In lockdown, there are a whole range of activities that we haven’t been able to engage in, or that have been constrained, so our autonomy has lessened. And with many of us not being able to work, we’ve had to seek competence at home – perhaps through hobbies such as exercise, baking and crafting.

Our relatedness has been hugely compromised. Distance and isolation have become the new touchstones of daily life, which has encroached on our ability to manage distress. One aspect of life that makes distress more tolerable is the physical contact, love and affection of others – and this isn’t as easy to experience as it once was.

And since over 65% of our communication is non-verbal, when we’re working and communicating in isolation, we’re more likely to assume negative intent from others. Interactions with others have therefore become more difficult as we often don’t have all the non-verbal cues to reassure us, affecting our confidence further.

Returning to ‘normal’

Now, as more and more aspects of lockdown are being eased, there’s a growing unease about how to return to ‘normal’ and many of us are experiencing ‘re-entry anxiety’.

As people have settled into a comfort zone that feels safe (although not perfect), they may be reluctant to move from this safe space into the unknown. Moving comfort zones can create a sense of uncertainty, which leads to ‘what if’-type worries and ultimately anxiety. This is what we experienced at the beginning of lockdown, and now we’ll be experiencing the reverse effect as we re-emerge.

What can we do to stay resilient?

The good news is, there are plenty of ways to stay resilient.

Reflection

Research has shown that spending just a few moments each evening reflecting on your day can make a big difference to your mental health.

Each day write down or think about:

  1. one thing that you found difficult, but made you feel good
  2. what made you stick at that thing, despite it being hard
  3. why the thing you did might be important for others
  4. why this might be important for you.

Self-kindness

Research tells us that self-compassion can act as a powerful antidote to many mental health difficulties. Being kinder to ourselves doesn’t only improve our emotional wellbeing, it can improve our immune, cardiovascular and nervous systems, and even regulate our genes.

Self-kindness involves accepting our situation and acknowledging that no one is perfect. It doesn’t mean we become complacent – it means we’re honest with ourselves and fully accountable for our actions.

If you’re struggling with re-entry anxiety, try speaking to yourself with kindness. It’s easier to imagine what you would say to encourage a friend. For example, you could tell yourself:

  • “It’s okay that I’m feeling hesitant about going back to normal – I’ve been isolating for over 3 months, and my home has become my comfort zone”
  • “Lots of other people must be feeling the same way – we’re all in the same boat”
  • “I will take small steps back to normality by walking a bit further away from home every day, and gradually doing more of the things I used to do”.

Worry postponement

Another thing we can do is to consider our worries – the thoughts and images we experience in a repetitive way. Imagine anxiety as a fire – a fire needs oxygen to thrive, so worry is the oxygen that keeps anxiety burning.

Worry can occur at any time or place, often without us being aware of its exact triggers. It’s also very tiring. It can interfere with our lives and feel uncontrollable. But that’s not true – we can choose when to worry. This strategy is called 'worry postponement’ (or making worry wait).

With practice, this technique can free you of unhelpful worry, and help you solve valid worries – here’s how it works:

  1. You’re in the middle of your working day and you suddenly have worries about the future
  2. Instead of letting this disrupt your flow and motivation, write the worry down and tell yourself you’ll come back to it later
  3. After work, read your worry and decide whether it’s still a problem or not
  4. If it is, ask yourself whether it’s in your control or not
  5. If it’s in your control, make a plan to solve it, or seek guidance from someone who can help you
  6. If it’s not in your control, accept that you can’t do anything about it, let it go, and focus on the things you can do.

Conclusion

Ultimately, how the ‘outside’ impacts the ‘inside’ is what psychology is all about. There are plenty of situations that are legitimate cause for concern, but how we deal with these situations can make a huge difference to how we feel.

A resilient mindset involves differentiating what we can control (and positively action) from what we can’t control. Being self-aware, self-compassionate, and recognising unhelpful worry is certainly something that we can control from the inside as we move into the next phase of the outside.

Last updated Thursday 3 September 2020