by Jeff Bentley, TLC Counselling
I am writing this on the 2nd July and the next phase of the easing of the lockdown restrictions is due to officially start in two days time. There are some who have already exhibited unbridled enthusiasm for this event and have started to fill their calendar with as much as possible. In contrast, there are those who, although very aware of the loss of contact with others, are feeling anxious at the thought of renewing any form of social contact and are hesitant to start interacting. If this is your experience, you are not alone.
During June, I ventured out for a trip to the local nursery to buy some plants. To be honest, I went with my wife who is the accomplished gardener and I pushed the trolley. Up to this point, my contact with the outside world had consisted of the odd trip to ‘click & collect’, socially distanced chats with neighbours and the odd visit to the pharmacy. When we arrived, I felt relaxed and the signage to get into the Nursery clearly identified that a ‘one way’ system was in operation. So, with me carefully steering our trolley, we set off following the arrows which took us past a large greenhouse where we entered the nursery grounds. It was at this point that the one-way system disappeared. I saw the raised beds with paths weaving in between them and rows of plants for sale. I also saw people roaming in all directions with social distancing virtually impossible to maintain. In that moment I was very aware that I had become quite anxious. My nervous system had detected a threat and was reacting accordingly. I was very curious about my reaction, which, to be honest, was unexpected. So, why did I react with a degree of what could be described as social anxiety?
Put simply, it was my brain trying to keep me safe at a time when nothing really felt completely safe. There are some universal reactions to the social isolation imposed by COVID-19 such as, frustration, concern for loved ones, financial worries, boredom, abandonment and sympathy for those who have lost loved ones and there is social anxiety. This is the fear of situations and interactions involving other people. Usually based on an intense worry of how others will view or judge us, it can also become more generalised into a basic fear of people and contact with people. If our brain is trying to safeguard us by using a form of social anxiety then it is trying to protect us from harm and keep us alive. For weeks, we have been told to stay away from people because they represent a threat to our health and survival. Therefore, it follows that right now our brain could be associating social contact with another person as dangerous. There may well be no actual threat but it can feel that way due to the immense amount of uncertainty that has and is present during these unprecedented times. This perhaps will help explain why when you begin to look forward to engaging socially again, you find that your desires are at odds with how you feel about it emotionally. You may be asking yourself, ‘Is it really safe? How do we know?’.
Remember that during this time of sheltering and isolation, our brains have had to quickly adapt to viewing others as a possible ‘threat’ to our health and survival. We have become very focused on behaviours and beliefs that support our chances of survival which means that it is going to take time to refocus and adapt. As we begin to emerge into the world again, we will need to let go of the safety we have come to rely on and acknowledge that it will take some time to feel comfortable.
To help with this process we can remind ourselves of what we can control, and take steps to protect ourselves by managing and reducing any risk when engaging socially. Start slow and small plus set clear boundaries. Understand what feels safe for you and what would make you anxious. I believe that there is nothing wrong with saying, ‘I would love to, but right now I don’t feel comfortable doing that.’ Allow yourself to prioritise your mental and physical health right now. Acknowledge that, for a while, life is not going to look the same as before and, going forward, I feel it is important to remember that other people are not the threat; the virus is the threat.
I came across this quote which you may find helpful and I acknowledge that we may need help and support to ‘walk through the door’:
‘Happiness nearly always lives on the other side of a doorway guarded by our fears. Push the fear aside and walk through the door. You’ll find greater happiness and be stronger for having done so.’ F. Talley, Ph.D. Psychologist.
For more information about TLC Counselling click here.