• Mark Palmer

Leaving lockdown – tips from an anxiety sufferer

For most of us, it is a huge relief that lockdown restrictions are finally being lifted, albeit with some likely bumps in the road ahead to tackle new variants. How are you feeling about going out more and life returning to something closer to normal, whatever that is? Even if you have been going out regularly to work (thank you!) or for other reasons, things are going to be changing soon. Public spaces will be getting busier and there will be more options for going out for leisure (remember that?)

You may be longing for these changes and excited to start socialising again. But many of us will be anxious, whether we normally have anxiety issues or not. As someone who has fought anxiety all my life, I want to share a few tips that I hope might help in dealing with these mental battles as times change again.

It is OK to be anxious!

None of us has lived through a time like the last year or so, and hopefully, none of us ever will have to again. This time will have affected us all mentally whether we can see it or not because everything that happens to us affects us mentally one way or another. As we start to venture out more regularly after spending over a year avoiding as much contact with others as possible because of a potentially deadly disease, it is natural that many of us will worry.

Let me tell you from experience that berating yourself and saying you need to stop being so silly and stop worrying does not work. I have been trying it for years! If you are worried, you are worried. It is fine to be you – you are amazing. If you bottle up your anxiety and do that very British thing of keeping a stiff upper lip and just carrying on, you are just storing up trouble for later.

The first and often the hardest step to tackling anxiety of any sort is to admit that it exists. Then you can start to deal with it.

Think it through – but don’t expect it to all make sense!

Anxiety is not a rational thing. It will not make logical sense, and you will probably not be able to argue yourself out of it. Your brain may be convinced on a rational level, but your emotions and mindset may have other views!

That being said, it can be helpful to try and pinpoint what it is that you are worried about. If it is a wider sense of fear about everything generally, I understand – I get that too (and if this fear becomes all-consuming and crippling, please ask others for help). But if there are particular issues that are causing you to worry, try to pinpoint as far as you can what these are. Just the process of thinking this through can be helpful in itself – it will move you from an overwhelmingly emotional response towards a more rational and logical mindset, at least temporarily. It may also help you to identify things that you are not worried about, which you may not have done and can help restore some perspective rather than focusing completely on the one thing that is a worry.

Your worries, including that overall sense of dread, may well seem silly when you put them into words. You can use that to deal with them to a degree, but the key point is that if something is bothering you it is not silly, however it appears to someone else or even the rational part of your own brain. One person standing on the edge of a high cliff may be fine, another standing next to them may be paralysed with fear of falling. The chances of each of them falling are very similar, but neither of them is right or wrong – their feelings are what they are and both are completely valid.

Make some plans

Once you have pinned down what you are worried about (to some degree at least), you can find a way to try to address it. In my experience, many worries are about things that might happen and the consequences if they do. Do not focus too much on whether these things are likely to happen or not – if that worked, you would not be worrying about most of them to start with! Instead, it might be helpful to have plans in your head for what you will do if they do happen and consider whether that would be so awful anyway – usually, the answer to that last question is that the consequences would not be as hideous as we first imagined once we give it some thought.

Many of our worries are mundane things that grow to huge proportions inside our heads – lots of us are experts at making mountains out of molehills. One of my recurring worries when going somewhere new is that I will not be able to find anywhere to park. Of course, there are always options, but in my head, I picture myself driving around and around growing ever more frantic searching for a space. How can I address this? By doing some research online about where I am going and having plans B, C, D and E for parking lined up ready to go! I will still worry but having those backup plans in mind helps considerably.

A recent straw poll of my work colleagues showed that by far the greatest anxiety they are feeling about returning to work is the risks of the journey to and from the office. This is something that can be managed in advance to some degree to try to keep your worries in check. Look at options for time of travel, different routes, different modes of transport and so on. You may not find an option that completely allays your fears, but knowing that you are taking all the precautions that you can could help to settle your mind.

There is no magic bullet to dispel anxiety, and logical arguments will rarely eliminate your concerns completely, but a bit of forethought and planning from facing up to your worries instead of pretending that they do not exist can help you to stay calmer.

Be kind to yourself

I have never run a marathon, but I am sure that it is exhausting. But what is even more exhausting is intense emotional turmoil, and that includes anxiety. If you are worrying, do not berate yourself or get angry with your feelings. You cannot fight them; you have to try and work with them. So try to do things that relax you both before and after the event you are worried about, and maybe even during the thing that is worrying you if you can!

If you are worried about your journey to work, make sure you try and get a good night’s sleep the night before, have some favourite music or a good book for the journey, and promise yourself a reward when you get there - a posh coffee or some chocolate work for me! So what if others take what you have done for granted – they are not you. Anxiety is real, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Similarly, be prepared for the tiredness to hit afterwards. Once you get home again to your safe place and relax, the adrenalin that has kept you going will leave your system and the exhaustion may well set in. Again, this does not mean that there is something wrong with you – it is how all humans are after a stressful event. If you need an early night or a nap, take it without feeling guilty. We all worry more when we are tired.

Prepare for next time

You did it – well done! Maybe none of the things you were worried about happened, maybe some of them did, but either way you got through it and here you are. Try and store away some of your positive feelings and how you dealt with the situation for the next time you are worried.

If it all went really well, you can reflect on that in the future. Of course, it does not mean that nothing you worry about will ever happen, but it does show that they will not automatically happen every time!

If something did go wrong, or you had a scare, how did you deal with it? In hindsight, was there something you could have prepared better for? Is there anything you can do to stop that thing or something similar from happening again? If not, how can you be better prepared for it happening next time? Most importantly, was it really that bad – you may have felt uncomfortable or worse, it may have been unpleasant, but you got through it, just as you will get through other things in the future.

To worry is to be human. If ever there was a time when more of us will be anxious than usual, this is it. But only do what you are comfortable with or must do and ask for help if you need it. Reaching out for support is never weak – it is brave, sensible, and intelligent.

Be yourself and give others the freedom to be themselves, including having worries that appear irrational to others and dealing with them their way. By helping and supporting one another rather than judging and condemning, we will get through this together.