By Dr Jan Orman
“I’m more scared now than I’ve been at any time in the pandemic. I don’t think I can go back to my normal life.”
That was my patient Mike’s* first comment when I saw him this week.
While much of the media is celebrating the end of CoVID-related restrictions, there are many in the community who, are not so happy about the prospect of interacting with others and possibly exposing themselves to the illness. Having some degree of anxiety about this major change in our lives is perfectly normal and many are reporting a whole range of concerns that are driving their “re-entry” anxiety.
Some recent examples of what I’m seeing in the community
- Mike is a 37-year-old man who lives with his parents. He is on a disability support pension for long- term mental health problems. Whilst his bipolar disorder renders him unable to work, he is able to provide support for his elderly parents, volunteer at his local op shop several days a week and enjoy his involvement in a community choir. Mike has undertaken all these things in order to better manage his mental health. Lockdown has taken its toll.
- Elaine*, on the other hand, realised during lockdown that it is time for change in her life. She is 53 and has loved working from home. She is dreading going back into the office, as she’s worried it will mean the return of the overwhelming social anxiety she has struggled with all her life. During lockdown she has not had to worry about what people thought of her - her appearance or her demeanour. She has slept well and hidden behind a Zoom screen, working with greater efficiency than ever before because her whole mind has been on the job. She is expected back in the office quite soon. Elaine is thinking about looking for another job, or even retiring altogether.
- Emma* is worried about her daughters returning to school. They are both too young to be vaccinated but she is aware that they can still get sick. She knows there are some families at school who have decided not to be vaccinated at all. Emma needs return to the office as well and she has heard this week that masks in the office in NSW will no longer be mandatory. She has never suffered from anxiety before but she has developed sleep difficulties and is constantly on edge with the end of lockdown approaching. She’s wondering about giving up work and home schooling the girls.
- And then there’s Alex,* working as a waiter in a small café until he lost his job in the first lockdown in 2020. He’s found after 18 months of no work, his anxiety about the process of looking for work is so great that he can’t even open the appropriate websites. He says he feels he has lost touch with how to function in the world.
We know that anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing and that in our current situation we are all experiencing some level of anxiety, but all these people and many more, need support as their anxiety threatens to interfere with their lives.
What about the health professionals?
Health professionals are not immune to re-entry anxiety. Perhaps more than other people we are very aware of the dangers of lifting the restrictions. With vaccinations available, we are better placed to keep the virus under control and we can be a little more relaxed about the possibility of getting sick ourselves or passing the virus on to our loved ones. There is still a lot of talk amongst health professionals and significant anxiety, around the possibility of future pandemics, with versions of this virus or even another virus developing. Health professionals are overworked and worried about the health system’s capacity to cope with any more surges, as well as their own.
Most media coverage on the adverse mental health effects of lockdown, focus understandably, on suicide rates, depression, substance abuse and family violence. We need to remember that anxiety is playing a big part in everybody’s lives right now. The lifting of restrictions may just uncover a lot more problems than we are anticipating.
However there are resources available to support and help us. You might like to take a look at these useful resources to help you manage any anxiety you may be feeling right now:
- A handout of anxiety management tips and professional advice from Black Dog Institute, here.
- A link to online professional peer support networks run by Hand-n-Hand for health practitioners in Australia and New Zealand, here.
- Search Head to Health to find evidence-based support online, here.
- Headspace website has a short interactive program about getting back to work and school after Covid, here.
*Identity and some details changed