Easing lockdown anxiety
Eighteen months ago, many workers embarked on what became a mass global remote-working experiment. We went from a nation of commuters and takeaway coffee drinkers to stay at home, can’t leave home, social hermits. Across that time period, we’ve each experienced the pandemic differently. Some have had to juggle working, parenting and home schooling, whilst others have been living in cramped conditions in flat-shares with paper-thin walls and limited means of escape. Romantic relationships have been tested, with more people than we might like finding themselves having to navigate the emotional rollercoaster of separation or divorce, while still living in the same home – many of whom did not have recourse to the same level of social support they would have liked.
A shared yet altogether different experience
While some people will have relished the Victorian piles with large gardens which they inhabit, many others will have had to make do living in cramped quarters with little or no outdoor space. Whatever your experience, it’s highly likely that it differed considerably to that of your friend, neighbour or colleague. It’s easy to see why people were quick to embrace the analogy of ‘same storm; different boat’. The ‘Same storm; different boat’ analogy is a metaphor which has often be referenced to describe how people with differing circumstances may have weathered Covid-19. It stems from a poem written by British writer, Damien Barr, in May 2020. Yet, the metaphor wrongly assumes that our circumstances can accurately predict our experience. The reality is likely quite different, primarily due to the way in which our unique brain processes our circumstances and distorts our individual experience. It means that many of us experience very different storms even if we happen to be navigating change in similar boats. Research published in 2010, found that we spend roughly half our time in our own heads - in our own metaphorical storm (which can differ significantly from any storm raging outside of our mind) - which can have a significant impact on our mental health and overall experience.
I had the privilege of checking in with thousands of people at different stages of the pandemic. What I found interesting to learn was how different everyone’s experiences were. As we venture out from our homes back into the world, we find ourselves in familiar yet unfamiliar territory. It might be easy to assume that because we managed to adjust our lives to lockdown restrictions relatively easily eighteen months ago, the reverse should be equally straight forward. After all, aren’t we simply returning to the life we once knew? Yet, the reality is likely to be quite different. Based on the data from various surveys, emerging from lockdown may in fact be more challenging for some people, not least because the world we left behind is fundamentally different to the one we now inhabit.
Thanks to a relentless eighteen months of news coverage, most of us have learnt to fear the virus. We were told to stay home to stop to spread of Coronavirus due to the dangers it posed to our society and the world. We were constantly bombarded with tragic stories of loved ones losing their lives, as well as how virulent strains of the virus were sweeping through communities leading to huge increases in the number of cases and deaths from those who contracted it. We have been reminded at every opportunity to keep at least two meters away from one another and to wear a mask indoors to avoid catching or spreading the virus. We have also had to endure the enforced isolation that resulted from our collective inability to see family and friends for many months.
While the rhetoric from government, which was amplified by the media, generally had the desired effect - namely, to get people to adhere to government guidelines - there is little doubt that the same rhetoric will have increased people’s fears and anxieties as we emerge from lockdown. Even though we can consciously appreciate that our eventual return to the office should be ok, our subconscious might be a little slower to catch-up, which may therefore increase anxiety levels as we adjust our expectations and unburden ourselves from the rhetoric which has been omnipresent on our minds for many, many months.
We also need to factor into the equation that we’ve had to endure a seismic shift to our daily routines, which many people struggled to adapt to initially. However, some 18 months later, we are living and working markedly differently to how we were before lockdown. Research would suggest that some will likely be ruing the loss of the newfound freedom that they have discovered from not needing to commute to work as they did before. The fact that they were able to carve more time out for self-care activities. The shift that occurred 18 months ago was unsettling for many, so it’s likely that people may find our emergence from lockdown challenging too. However, there will be those people who rejoice at the possibility of being able to set clearer boundaries for themselves by using the start and end of their working day as a clear marker in the sand to enable them to switch off and recharge – something which proved impossible for many while working from home.
Over the past couple of months, I have been delivering workshops looking at how to better manage our relationship with anxiety. The things that stood out if the high levels of anxiety amongst those who attended the sessions. On the one hand, it we could argue that it was a self-selecting bunch of people who are feeling more anxious who opted to attend. Yet, many of the sessions were run for teams, where people weren’t able to opt in or out. Across the board anxiety levels have been high. Three quarters of people agree that they have been feeling anxious in recent weeks, with only a quarter registering little to no anxiety.
What can people do if they are feeling more anxious than usual? Some of the skills and tools I have been sharing revolve around being able to better recognise, understand and label their emotions. I have also been seeking to normalise the conversation and help people recognise that experiencing some anxiety is a normal part of being human. Our emotions, even ones that don’t feel pleasant, serve a purpose. They evolved to alert us to possible dangers lurking around the corner or directly in front of us. However, as Harvard’s Dr Susan David helpfully points out, emotions are data and not directives. We shouldn’t mistake our emotions as facts that need to be acted upon, but rather as an early detection system that is prone to errors.
When it comes to emotions, many of us still have an unhelpful (and sometimes unhealthy) relationship with our emotions. We tend to over-identify with them, rather than experience them with greater objectivity and perspective. We can judge ourselves harshly for feeling a certain way, which can compound matters further. Often, we attempt to either push unpleasant feelings away or look to numb ourselves to dull their unpleasantness. Science will tell us that neither strategy is effective in the medium to long-term. What might seem to give us temporary relief, only serves to increase our propensity to experience anxiety in future or can lead to physical ill-health in the years to come.
So, what can we do instead? As a starting point, can you learn to lean into your emotions with curiosity rather than judgement? If you are familiar with mindfulness, it can be a great skill to hone, as it requires us to pay attention to the present moment, on purpose, without judgement. That means accepting, rather than fighting, resisting or judging, our experience (no matter how unpleasant). By staying curious, you can learn to better understand what may be contributing to your feelings of anxiety, which gives you insight into what you can do to help alleviate it. We can sometimes expend a lot of energy on worrying about things we can do little about. Instead, we should aim to focus our energy on making progress on the things we can. As always, talking about how you feel with someone you trust and who is willing to listen, can be a great way to help process and regulate the emotions you might be experiencing.
Finally, remember that emotions are transient. While they reside within us, they are not us. If you find yourself saying ‘I am anxious’, you can cultivate greater perspective (a little more distance between you and your emotions) by saying ‘I notice than I am feeling anxious’. While this might seem like semantics, the way we view emotions matters. Reminding ourselves that we are not our emotions, is the first step in helping us to build a healthier friendship with them, which enables us to see them for what they are: data to be considered not a directive that must be acted upon.
Interested in learning more?
If your organisation is looking to help employees better navigate their emotions as we emerge from lockdown, or if you are interested in exploring 1-2-1 coaching options to help you to flourish, please get in touch.