Restrictions are lifting and establishments are reopening slowly across the country, particularly Victoria. While this is a cause for celebration for many, some may be worried about venturing back out into the ‘real world’ — and not just because of health fears.
This post was originally published on May 20.
While many of us have spent months declaring we can’t wait to get out of isolation, now we may feel like we’re not quite ready to re-enter society. We might even be feeling anxious about seeing people in our previously regular social circles. We spoke to some experts to find out why.
We’re living through a complicated and scary time in human history, so there’s no single or simple reason as to why you might not be as excited to rejoin the world as you thought you would be. Individuals will have different concerns, perhaps several in some cases. These are just some of them.
The New Normal
Australia has been in various forms of isolation for eight months now, with Victoria coping it the hardest during the second wave of infections. That has been enough time for some people to get used to the decrease in social interaction.
Jayashri Kulkarni, a professor of psychiatry at Monash University, said in an email to Gizmodo Australia that human being are creatures of habit.
“While we can adapt to change, it takes time and effort to shift long-standing habits. Initially, there was considerable concern about isolation ” and there still is ” but over the past few weeks, we got used to having a “˜smaller world’,” Kulkarni said.
“Many are now fearing an end to isolation because it is another change, a loss of control over a smaller world. Once you limit your world, the re-entry into it can be frightening ” after all, there are many more loud noises, bright lights, differing opinions to contend with.”
Some experts such as Professor Kim Felmingham, professor and Chair of Clinical Psychology at the University of Melbourne, have also stated that some people enjoy, and perhaps even thrive, working from home because it’s an environment where they can live a little more flexibly and make time for themselves.
“[Some people] are reporting gaining new perspective during lockdown and rethinking what wasn’t good about how they were living their previous lives — with more time for reflection, more time with family, and more time to explore important activities that are meaningful,” Felmingham said.
“Re-engaging can lead to less time with family and loved ones, less relaxation or exercise time, and less time to follow meaningful pursuits. In this situation, there may be a fear of losing the insights and time gained during lockdown.”
Kulkarni has spoken to people who have had positive experiences in isolation due to being able to better control social interactions from their homes.
“Many people spoke about the enhanced ‘peace and quiet’ of working from home, not having to commute or get dressed for work, not having to cope directly with others in the workplace — not having face to face negative workplace interactions, in particular… having control is very important to us, so limiting contact and controlling the individual environment gives comfort and reassurance to many,” Kulkarni said.
Some people may have found some comfort in being able to hide from the realities of COVID-19: illness, business closures, job losses. With restrictions lifting, they won’t so easily be able to shield themselves physically or mentally.
“When in isolation with a narrowed world, denial is easier. So, we lived in a more ‘present tense’ way ” just getting food, dealing with unusual telecommunication meetings and virtual get togethers,” Kulkarni said.
“It was easier to turn off the news when desired. Return to socialisation makes the world bigger, scarier and harder to deny, she said.”
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In addition to the fear of contracting COVID-19 itself, concern over the unknown has become common for Australians this year. Concerns such as not knowing when there will be a vaccine and uncertainty regarding jobs, restrictions and what the rules are for each state. Confusion around the COVIDSafe app and general disillusionment regarding whether things will ever truly be the same.
These constant questions and a future filled with potential threats can leave a psychological mark and be a cause for anxiety — especially if there’s a second wave of infection.
“I think this can be attributed to an increased anxiety and uncertainty about the future, and about people’s safety — health, social and economic. Once our life is no longer predictable and following a normal course, it is confronting and challenging to engage with a new reality and way of being,” Felmingham said.
“There is also uncertainty about the future which is a really significant factor ” the knowledge that a lockdown will gradually be reduced, not knowing precise timelines or how this might happen, and importantly knowing that we might need to revert back into lockdown if there are future waves of the virus makes it hard to plan future activities/life events and makes it hard to be confident about where you will be heading into the future, she said.”
Felmingham also pointed out that the cause for isolation-related anxiety won’t be the same for everyone. While some will be concerned about their health as the return to work, as well as just how serious the virus has become, others will be concerned with the other new realities that COVID-19 has brought to Australia.
“For others, I think this may be more about fear of confronting a new reality, and most particularly, a new economic reality. Needing to re-engage with a society that has fundamentally changed, with changing rules for social interaction and massive economic uncertainty can significantly raise anxiety. In some ways, this lockdown period enables people to cocoon themselves or shield themselves, but now re-engaging with our old lives can sharpen anxiety as we re-engage,” Felmingham said.
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Fear Of Other People
While it seems obvious that some may be scared that the end of isolation heightens their risk of infection, what is perhaps less considered is the toll this fear takes psychologically — especially in regards to social interaction and comfort.
Due to the contagious nature of the virus, as well as some carriers being asymptomatic, anyone could be a potential threat. This includes strangers as well as loved ones.
“Another unique aspect here is that inadvertently, by the very nature of the level of contagion of this virus, other people have become potential threats. We need to keep our distance, avoid people we don’t know. This undermines a common coping mechanism we typically use in the face of threat, and one we saw exemplified in the bushfires, which is coming together and supporting each other and working together as a community,” Felmingham said.
Kulkarni believes this threat of others could manifest in other concerning ways.
“Loss of control ” which comes from return to the wider world, can generate further fear of infection. This could lead to social phobia — avoiding others or social situations or having panic attacks when socialising. A sense of paranoia about others can be heightened when back in circulation and this can be expressed as racism or specific hostility to certain groups,” Kulkarni said.
“Increased obsessive ” compulsive behaviour will be seen in many ” with increased germ phobia, compulsive cleaning rituals and obsessive thoughts about illness and death.”
It’s Worse For Some
For more fortunate Australians, particularly those outside Victoria, COVID-19 has been an exercise in changing our routines around a largely unseen enemy – working from home, fighting boredom and adjusting to this new normal. Perhaps it has allowed time to develop a new skill, to bake some bread and to reflect on what we want our lives and relationships to look like moving forward. If this is you, that’s great and your experience shouldn’t be invalidated. We’re all living through history and doing the best we can.
But unfortunately for some, isolation has been far more taxing, terrifying and even dangerous. “For some unfortunately it has led to significant escalation of substance use, mental health issues and family violence,” Felmingham said.
“Combine this with the difficulty in engaging in our usual coping mechanisms of supporting one another through family and friends and community support ” this can exacerbate our anxiety future.”
Several of our experts mentioned the 2019-2020 bushfires which devastated large chunks of the country. Australia didn’t have a chance to physically, psychologically or emotionally heal before COVID-19 ravaged the country again. This is important because as a nation we have actually been dealing with collective grief, loss and a lack of normality for longer than a few months now. So it makes sense if people are feeling anxiety and a whole other range of emotions ever more deeply right now.
Ferlmingham draws a comparison between this national precursor to COVID-19 with individuals who deal with prior physical or mental health conditions.
“If people have been coping or living with chronic health conditions, this can lead to significant escalation in anxiety and for people already experiencing mental health issues. These may have been markedly exacerbated during lockdown,” Felmingham said.
“We know there has been a significant impact on mental health due to COVID 19 and the lockdown, with some developing mental health issues for the first time, but others having a major exacerbation of symptoms.”
So if you are venturing back into the world — whether socially, for work or otherwise — try and approach others and yourself with an extra dose of empathy and kindness. You don’t know what somebody else is going through right now other than the collective COVID-19 experience. With some much uncertainty in our futures we need our humanity now more than ever.