While countries worldwide are at different stages of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, many are now gradually lifting so-called ‘lockdown’ measures. However, while some may be looking forward to seeing family and friends for the first time in several weeks, others may be experiencing concern and a heightened state of anxiety.
Some countries, including the United Kingdom, have already reported significantly higher numbers of urgent mental health referrals in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As lockdown restrictions ease this is likely to continue to increase.
Individuals who were self-isolating alone due to pre-existing conditions or weak immune systems may be particularly vulnerable to mental health issues, as well as those who may have contracted COVID-19, or experienced severe symptoms without being tested for the disease.
So what can you do as an individual to cope with post-lockdown mental health issues?
Control What You Can Control
Since the start of the year when COVID-19 first became a global pandemic, the guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) has largely remained constant.
Guidance around personal hygiene, including regular handwashing and social distancing is now well established. In other words, it’s clear that our own behaviour and actions have the most significant influence on the spread of the virus.
This means that if you’re feeling anxious about going out, remember that you’re in control! Keep doing what you have been doing for the past few months and continue to maintain good hygiene practices. This will not only ensure you do your part to help prevent a second wave of infection, but should help relieve your anxiety too. Focus on what you can control and try not to stress too much about the actions of other people.
Don’t Feel Pressured into Going Back ‘To Normal’
We have all had different experiences of lockdown, with some people enjoying the opportunity to take a slower pace of life and switch off, while others have loathed being stuck indoors and away from loved ones.
Be sure to stay up to date on advice from local authorities on what is and is not allowed as lockdown restrictions are eased. However it’s important to remember that just because you are now able to do an activity that you weren’t before, does not mean that you have to if you’re not feeling 100% comfortable.
It’s unreasonable to expect people to be thrust back into life at full speed after a strict lockdown. Take time to transition and ease yourself back into things gradually. Prepare yourself to go back to work; and if you can continue to work from home then ask your employer if it is possible to do so, at least for a few days a week.
If you’re worried about infection then don’t rush back to restaurants and bars as soon as they open, even if your friends may be doing so. Allow yourself to get back into the swing of things at your own pace. Set small goals such as meeting one or two family members in private or somewhere that is not crowded, and gradually build up from there. Of course you should always continue to follow the public health advice in your area and maintain appropriate social distancing.
Seek Help If You Need It, And Talk to Others
One of the most important messages in a mental health context is to seek help if you need it. The importance of mental health has rightly been placed in the spotlight in the wake of COVID-19, and this will hopefully go a long way to eroding some of the stigma that still exists around this topic.
However if you still find it difficult to open up about your mental health, remind yourself that the whole world has faced COVID-19 so many people may be experiencing similar feelings to you. You may therefore find it easier than you usually would to discuss your emotions. Try speaking with others to talk through your lockdown experience and how you feel about going back to normal – you’ll likely find that many others feel the same as you.
If that doesn’t help and you find yourself continuing to struggle, then you can also seek professional help if you need it. Your employer or health insurer may have an Employee Assistance Programme you can access, or you can contact your local health professional for support.
Keep Up the Good Habits
Lockdown may have allowed you to hit the reset button and adopt new, healthy habits, such as exercise or healthy eating. Don't let coming out of lockdown reset you into bad habits! Keep up the good work as a healthy routine will help to improve your mental wellbeing as well.
You might also have reduced your social media or news consumption as a means of dealing with anxiety as and when COVID-19 dominated the headlines. If this has helped you to feel happier and less anxious, then maintain that good habit too!
Focus on Your Wellbeing First
During the pandemic much of the global messaging has centred on the importance of helping others. Maintaining social distancing, self-isolating if symptomatic, and wearing a mask are some of the measures we may have taken to help avoid infecting the vulnerable and prevent local healthcare services from becoming overwhelmed.
While we should continue to adopt good behaviours as directed by local authorities, now it's important that you take time to focus on yourself. Do whatever you need to focus on your own wellbeing post-lockdown.
If looking after yourself means that you stay home for a little longer and don't jump headfirst back into ‘real life’, then that's fine. Likewise, if you need to get out and see people that you haven’t seen for weeks and months to give your mental health a boost, make that your number one priority. Do what feels right for you and take each day as it comes.
Coping with Post-Lockdown Mental Health Issues
Dealing with mental health issues is always tough, and this may be even more challenging post-lockdown, when there may be more people facing tough times and seeking help.
Most importantly you should remember that everyone’s mental health is different, and what may work for some may not work for you. Your best strategy is to identify what is best for you as an individual - then tell those close to you how you’re feeling and what you’re doing to maintain your mental health, so they can better support you.
Whatever you feel as you emerge from lockdown and start to adjust to the ‘new normal’, remember to take things at your own pace and be kind to yourself. You’ve got this!