COVID-19

The strange walk to freedom

I suggest to my concerned clients that we start to make a plan for the end of lockdown. We envisage what it may be like and aim to go the baby steps route, one small step at a time.

The end of lockdown seems to be in sight…

Even though there are fears about what’s happening in the rest of Europe where cases still seem to be climbing and new lockdown rules are in force, the UK government is signalling it’s going to be all change here from June 21. Everyone will be allowed to move around, see their families, go to restaurants, pubs and do whatever else they fancy from that magical day. We will maybe still have to wear masks in crowded places but that sounds like a small price to pay. 

The “unlocking” is happening in stages. School started again on March 8 and children are already on their road to normality. But, for adults, the next big event happens on April 12 when a little more trivial pleasure is allowed with the reopening of non-essential shops and hairdressers. Personal grooming is once again set to be a top priority. 

Can you imagine it? Being let out after more than a year of being confined to base and creeping out guiltily when you do dare to go anywhere, even if it’s somewhere you’re “allowed” to. Who on earth won’t be relieved when all these rules and regulations are finished?

Some people – key workers and builders for example – have been working throughout so I’m imagining they may have developed their own kind of normality by now. Other people may have chosen – or learned – to live fairly restricted lives as a matter of course and the lockdown may have had a limited impact on them.

But, for the vast majority of us, lockdown was imposed and, after the initial enjoyment of time off while “working from home” the restrictions have felt like a running sore. Or the hokey-cokey – in out, in out, what is it all about. Nobody seemed to have any idea except something about following the science and there was a wide range of opinions on that. No wonder we became more and more anxious as each lockdown was thrust upon us.

So here we are. Fantastic news. It’s going to be great, isn’t it? Yes it is, particularly if the vaccination programme works as well as it seems to be. We humans are sociable; we need friends and family and we need physical contact. Hugs (which, according to the Government guidance will not be considered with anyone outside your social bubble before May 17) are necessary for our wellbeing. We need touch. We shrivel inside a little if we don’t have physical connections with fellow humans. And I’m not talking about sex or being touched by those we don’t like, that’s a different matter. It’s the physical affection of those we do that matter so much. And we have been missing it.

So why is it, then, that there seems to be an undercurrent of anxiety at what comes next? I hear comments from both friends and clients and they sound unsettled. I encourage my clients to explain further. What I take from that is that humans are so adaptable – a wonderful evolutionary trait – that we have become institutionalised. If I’m going to summarise, I’d say we were told at the start of lockdown that if we went outside our extremely restricted social bubble we would either kill or be killed. This virus would get us.

Now, a year on and with hopes of a successful vaccination programme, we are told to go out, go to work etc. etc. As long as we keep washing our hands and covering our mouths when we sneeze (obvious, really), we’ll be fine. Even I, a stoic former boarder since the age of eight, feel that’s a bit of an adjustment to make.

I suggest to my concerned clients that we start to make a plan for the end of lockdown. We envisage what it may be like and aim to go the baby steps route, one small step at a time. We can imagine, if you like, that we are moving from an extreme inner world in which our options were severely restricted to an outer external world where anything is allowed. It’s a little like having been a prisoner where all your choices are made for you, even if you didn’t like them. Once released, you have to start acting for yourself again. As an adaptable human who has evolved over thousands of years, it’s very doable but it may take a little imagination and practice.

On a practical level, maybe make a plan. If you are based in a city and you have to go to an office for work, have a practise run. If your usual route is rush hour to Oxford Street and you’re not sure that you’re up for an extreme crush at this point, consider different routes – try them out – so you become comfortable once again with what you used to do with no thought at all. 

It may feel unnerving to move from two metres apart to in-your-face (but with masks) commuting. Remember to breathe. Someone told me of his own experience of finding it weird when another person came and sat close-ish to him on a train. He has become used to having so much more space to himself in public places over the past year, he is now having to relearn how to be in such close proximity with fellow travellers. 

That same person, by the way, told me how he’d had to get used to walking in “proper” shoes again. He’s been in trainers all year and, even with exercise socks, found he was getting blisters on his feet with his uniform leather shoes. Who knew that it wouldn’t just be our minds that became powerless but our bodies too.

If you’re experiencing a sense of general anxiety but not entirely sure what about, I’d recommend the meditation apps. They’re useful at keeping a person grounded. That phrase is used so much it’s become a cliché but never mind, it’s still important. Our minds may go off into all sorts of flights of fantasy – the “what-ifs” of imagination – and being grounded is a great way of keeping on top of those very same fantasies. “I am here … this is happening now … I don’t need to worry about anything else just at this moment.” It’s a mantra that will keep you rooted in the present.

These few ideas are aimed at those of us who are suffering from lockdown fever but also a little worried about moving from the safety of our own small world to the apparent wider, and what we may perceive to be a less safe, world outside. Like it or not, I believe we have been infantilised and now we’re going to have go back to our adult selves. 

It may seem a bit daunting but think how good it will be to make our own decisions once again. It’ll be fun. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Lulu Sinclair

Lulu is an experienced journalist who has worked in print, TV, radio and digital media. She retrained as a psychotherapist and counsellor some years ago and now combines both her passions. She writes a regular blog on mental health topics for a Harley Street psychotherapy practice.

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