Jennifer SavinTue, 23 March 2021, 3:25 pm
Somehow – although it doesn’t quite feel real – today is the official one year ‘anniversary’ of the first coronavirus-related lockdown hitting the UK. Last March, the world changed for all of us and saw the way we work, date and socialise change… possibly even for good, in some cases (whether or not we’ll all be going back to office life full-time is a current big topic up for debate).
Given that now the government have announced their four-step plan to reversing COVID-19 restrictions and getting the country back to ‘normal’ (which of course will look completely different for different people), many are wondering how long it’ll take to actually feel normal again, seeing as so much has changed. Will we always grab a face mask whenever we’re popping to the shops and feel a bit icky at the thought of dancing in a crowd at a festival?
While it’s impossible to give a fixed amount of time that applies to everyone, Dr Meg Arroll, Healthspan‘s resident Chartered Psychologist has some very interesting thoughts on the subject. “I tend not to refer to any human experience as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ – whatever someone feels is valid for them and when we take the time to peek below the surface to understand our emotional world, it always makes sense,” she explains. “Therefore, if we’re feeling anxious or nervous at the prospect of lockdown ending, it’s useful for us to unpick why this may be.”
Dr Arroll adds that by now, we’re probably (although it may not feel that way on the surface) quite used to this alternative way of pandemic living, “Transitions commonly cause psychological growing pains, where our minds and neural networks try to hold onto our well-known habits in an effort to provide a sense of certainty.”
She also says that it’s common to struggle with big changes (such as… living through a pandemic and then resuming life afterwards), “This is why habits can be so hard to change – we often talk about habit change with regard to health behaviours (e.g., new exercise, eating and/or sleep habits) and we know quite a lot about the barriers and aids to this. What’s happened over the past year has essentially been a naturalistic observational study in behaviour change, on a global scale – and if we take something from the trauma and loss that has been experienced, learnings from this time should be top of the list.”
And as for a rough timescale? Dr Arroll says, “We know that on average it takes 66 days for an old habit to be replaced by a new one, but this varies between individuals considerably from 18 to 254 days. What this tells us is that for most people, the behaviours imposed by lockdowns will now be embedded and new neural connections have been made to support these habits. So it will take time once again to readjust.”
She adds that it’s a positive thing that our route out of lockdown is a gradual one, as that’s exactly what psychologists would suggest for anyone feeling nervous about embarking on a behaviour change programme, or if they’re feeling anxious about being back in the open world. “We call this graded exposure therapy,” Dr Arroll notes. “And I would propose that anyone who is feeling uncomfortable about the end of lockdown should follow the guidelines and use these progressive steps to re-establish new behavioural patterns.”
For example, if on 29 March, you see who’d like to meet in a group of 6 in your local area, you could then build your daily activities and socialising up until by 21 June (the earliest point at which all COVID rules will be lifted) and you will have steadily increased your exposure in a psychologically safe and controlled way.
“If, however, during this process you begin to have some physical signs of anxiety such as heart palpitations, dizziness and light-headedness or tummy problems, feel a sense of overwhelming dread or indeed panic attacks, it would be worth checking in with your internal dialogue to see if any catastrophic or other distorted thought patterns are playing in your mind,” she recommends.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy can help with this, as well as progressive relaxation exercises, diaphragmatic breathing and products that contain CBD oil which have been shown to reduce the symptoms of social anxiety.”
So there we have it: it could take anywhere from a couple of months, to 250-odd days (possibly even longer) to feel calm and ‘normal’ (note the inverted commas) again. So remember, go at your own pace and if you’re feeling pressured, it’s totally fine to tell your friends you’re rolling at a slower speed.