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Emerging from lockdown: how to cope with the new normal

Coronavirus restrictions around the UK are being lifted, but things still aren't quite as they were. Here Dr Meg Arroll shares her tips on dealing with post-lockdown anxiety in the 'new normal'.

As lockdown and social distancing guidelines change, it would at first seem that life is getting back to a semblance of normality. However, there is still a great deal of anxiety surrounding this 'new normal' - a way of life that's familiar, yet still rather disjointed, confusing and worrisome.

Here Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan, explores the three 'As' of coping with our ever-shifting lockdown landscape - awareness, acceptance and adjustment.

Awareness... of your strengths

Often during times of anxiety, we suffer from a 'should' or 'shouldn't' mindset. This can manifest itself in thoughts such as 'I should be able to cope with this' or 'I shouldn't be feeling so anxious, as I've not been ill myself'. These negative thought patterns hamper our natural coping capacity, but we can control this type of mind game by increasing awareness of our strengths.

When experiencing anxiety, it can be difficult to identify our individual qualities, so ask your close friends and loved ones what they think your strengths are. If this feels uncomfortable, you can take an online quiz to illustrate your unique profile of character strengths (see viacharacter.org).

You can then use this information to tailor coping skills to your personality. For example, leadership and kindness may be some of your strengths, so you may want to start a community group to help others acclimatise to the new and changing lockdown guidelines. The key here is to work with your personality type, rather than against it.

Coping with coronavirus anxiety

  • Moderate the amount of news you consume. Constant harrowing headlines are fuel for anxiety, so turn off phone notifications from news apps and only consult trusted sources of information such as the World Health Organization.
  • Go back to the basics. Poor sleep and diet and lack of physical activity also play into an anxious mindset, so prioritise the cornerstones of health by eating well, taking exercise and keeping to a regular sleep routine.
  • Control the controllables. Feeling that we have no control over our lives often leads to anxiety, but we can nurture a sense of control by taking action within our circle of influence. It may not be within your power to halt the pandemic, but there are other acts you can do in your immediate environment. Zoom in on these controllables and you'll feel much less anxious.
  • Maintain boundaries. For many of us, life has been thrown into disarray, which has resulted in blurred boundaries. This can lead to emotional burnout and anxiety, so think about installing some structure back into your days: separate workspace from family space in the home, limit contact with those that drain your emotional energy and know that you are doing the best you can in this unprecedented situation.

Acceptance... of uncertainty and change

Transitions are inherently disruptive. Therefore, it's helpful to acknowledge how you're feeling and accept all the emotions that may arise, including unpleasant states such as anxiety, and more positive feelings like gratitude and love.

Recognise and accept that transitions take time - and this is OK. Try not to place unrealistic expectations on yourself to adapt overnight, but rather focus on the small steps you're making to improve life for yourself and others. This can include following government guidelines; we explain these in this article.

Furthermore, accepting that we've all been touched by the coronavirus in some way is extremely useful in limiting the detrimental impact of the restrictions we still face. Simply knowing that other people are in the same boat can go a long way to bringing back a sense of equilibrium in our lives, even in challenging times.

Look but don't touch - how to love at arm's length

It's no doubt that after so many weeks, seeing loved ones for the first time but not being able to cuddle, kiss or touch can be torturous. To make this somewhat easier, follow these steps:

  • Have a call before the meeting so that the pent-up emotion is somewhat relieved, and your love banks don't overflow into a stolen embrace.
  • Acknowledge the oddness of the situation to dispel its cloud over the meet-up.
  • Write a heartfelt note and leave it with your loved ones, so they have something to hold on to when you leave.
  • Know that all time together is precious, even when you cannot touch, as gratitude rewires the brain to cope in difficult circumstances.

Adjustment... take the good with you

Many people have found some rays of sunshine during these dark days. Pollution is much reduced, air quality is cleaner, life has slowed down and we've made a concerted effort to connect with others, if by virtual means. It would be a shame to lose these aspects of this new order completely as they have improved our quality of life, so now is the opportunity to take positive action and retain the adjustments that have led to a more fulfilling existence.

Ask yourself, 'what do I want this time to be remembered for?' You might have spent more time observing nature, found a new hobby or met neighbours during the NHS 'Clap For Our Carers' that you didn't even know existed. Use these insights to guide your 'new normal' adjustments, so that you may rise from the ashes of coronavirus as a more grounded and contented you.

Dr Meg Arroll PhD CPsychol AFBPsS is a chartered psychologist, scientist and academic researcher with a specialist focus on health and stress, integrative medicine and wellbeing.

Find out more at Dr. Meg Arroll's website, or read more about Healthspan's health experts.

Always follow the Government's guidelines on self-isolation and social distancing – see gov.uk/coronavirus for more information and the latest updates.