health

"Life has changed." 4 signs you're suffering from re-entry anxiety, and what to do about it.

Your old life. Remember her? She was great. Coffee catch-ups, dinner dates, dancing in a club, hanging with yer pals, gathering around a Woolies cake in the office - what a time! 

So then why does the possibility of returning to your 'normal life' seem so bloody... daunting?

Because it does! It really does. While we've all been giving the old, "When this is all over, can't wait to catch-up", the truth is - half of us are really freakin' terrified about the whole IRL thing.

Like, will it feel weird to be around so many people again? Is it really... safe? And f**k. Will you even remember how to talk to people? HOW DO YOU HUMAN, AGAIN?!

Watch: Things you probably wouldn't say in the new normal of lockdowns and closed international borders. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia.

With 'freedom day' on the horizon and an end to the lockdown life in our sights, there's no denying there's been a noticeable shift in how we're all feeling.  

As we reach towards the 80 per cent double dose vaccination, rules are beginning to relax and there's a very clear roadmap in place - with new freedoms around outdoor gatherings, visitors, offices, ticketed events and nightclubs. 

People are getting vaccinated. Kids are going back to school. We're moving out of the crisis zone. It's all VERY good news.

But as the dates for freedom inch closer - there's an elephant in the room. And it's anxiety.

Because after months and months of social distancing being programmed into our daily routines, the mere thought of returning to life as it was is utterly terrifying.

Take Molly, 29, for example. When asked about what she thought of the impending freedoms, she said she had mixed feelings. "I'm definitely not looking forward to more traffic on the morning commute to work and dealing with more crowds - it's been a really nice change. On the social side of things... honestly, the idea of being in a fully packed bar gives me a tight chest."

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And it makes a lot of sense that people feel weird and disconnected about getting back to normal activities. After adjusting to the 'new normal', we've settled into a routine - something that humans thrive off. While we all miss family and friends, there's no denying we've become comfy and secure with what we now know.

There's a reason behind why we're so reluctant to separate from our routines, especially when it involves enjoying the presence of others.

It's called re-entry anxiety, and it's the new psychological phenomenon that has us struggling to once again adapt to our old lives.

The 're-entry anxiety' phenomenon.

Coined by psychologists Jeanne and John Gullahorn in the 1960s, 're-entry syndrome' was a term used to describe the emotional toll of rejoining society. 

The Gullahorn's studied a group of people who had been away from home for long periods of time and found these candidates had developed something called a 'W curve'. 

It's basically a graph that shows a dip when someone is removed from their normal society, before peaking when they rejoin it and dipping again as they struggle to integrate back into their old lives (you can think of it like a roller coaster).

Psychologists call this a 'reverse culture shock'.

Image: Getty. While it's particularly severe among soldiers, prisoners and Arctic explorers, it's also a similar feeling to what you get when you return home from overseas after a length of time. It's never a case of just returning home and picking up exactly where you left off.

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It's more complicated than that. 

"Re-entry anxiety is a sort of post-lockdown anxiety where people are feeling worried, stressed, anxious and even scared about re-entering the world. In general, it’s nervousness about reintegrating back into the world, or back to (the new) normal," explains Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno.

"That might mean feeling nervous about being around people or feeling anxious about attending social gatherings. The reason many people are suffering from re-entry anxiety is because we’ve become accustomed to our current lives and now the changes in lockdowns are threatening to throw that off course." 

While there's a very obvious feeling of widespread joy and excitement around 'freedom day', reintegration and a period of introspection is something that can be expected - almost guaranteed.

"In short, we’ve adapted to a new way of life but are now being asked to adapt again (or change back to how it used to be)! That’s a lot of change to endure and whilst most people are quite resilient, it is still a lot to handle.

"Many people are also suffering from fear or nervousness about being around people for fear of contracting the virus. This can make it hard to know how cautious to be or makes them start to question whether it’s just safer to stay home."

Learning new behaviours.

The last year has been... intense. 

A study published in The Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) identified trajectories of elevated or increasing depression (about 19 per cent of participants) and anxiety symptom scores (23 per cent of participants) over the 12‐week period between May and June 2020.

According to MJA, factors associated with this rise were COVID‐19‐related, with young people, those who are suffering financial distress, those who have an existing mental disorder diagnosis, and those who have been exposed to recent adversity (such as the bushfires of 2019–20).

It was found that this pattern was consistent with previous suggestions that the pandemic should raise concerns about risks for mental ill health.

So, yeah - it's not entirely unexpected.

The threat of anxiety around the pandemic is not necessarily a new thing. The past few years have fostered the perfect breeding ground for fear and uncertainty. Confusion. Lack of trust in governments. The panic around contracting the virus. Suspicion and doubt of others. (Are they vaxxed? And if not, are they getting vaxxed?).

However, just because there's now a roadmap to freedom, unfortunately it's not something where we can just snap our fingers and jump back into how things were before. Nah. It just doesn't work like that.

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Y'see our brains have learnt all of these new behaviours during the pandemic. We've adjusted to working from home, social distancing, and isolating. 

Studies have shown that while most people exhibit acute responses to an unexpected adversity, they then adapt to the situation and pick up on new behaviours.

In a study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it was found that on average, it takes around two months before a new behaviour becomes automatic — exactly 66 days.

In terms of how long it takes a new habit to form, this can vary widely depending on the behaviour, the person, and the circumstances. 

In the study, it took anywhere from 18 days to 254 days for people to form a new habit. 

"Re-entry anxiety can affect anyone, but particularly those that have experienced long periods of lockdown. Life has changed in many ways and for some people their lockdown routine became a positive thing," said Sokarno.

Lockdown was a time for many people to pause and re-evaluate their life and what they want from it - whether that be moving away from the city, changing jobs, or fading out of certain social circles.

Meaning? Don't feel the pressure to dive back in and be your old self as soon as restrictions lift. It's going to take a while - and that's okay.

Image: Getty. 

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For uni student Sinead, 23, re-establishing who she was before the pandemic and slipping back into the mould of the social butterfly she once was, is something that seems quite daunting.

"I live on a university campus, and with lockdown easing I almost feel overwhelmed at the prospect of socialising and going out again. I'm surrounded by students every day, so I don't have a chance to kind of ease back into it. I don't even know if I remember how to talk to people."

As Sokarno explains, the discomfort around shifting back to your pre-pandemic self is more common than you might think.

"With the looming 'freedom day', as it’s being called for New South Wales and other areas around Australia, it is a phenomenon that many people are experiencing. The sense of nervousness really varies from person to person, but there’s definitely a surge of people feeling that way," she said.

"A lot of it has to do with the fact that people feel like they’d had finally adjusted and settled into their new routine and now the change feels threatening to their way of life. Many people are also feeling pressure or nervousness when it comes to social situations – we’ve been starved of that for so long that it’s left people wondering how to act."

The common indicators.

So, how do you pinpoint the exact feelings of re-entry anxiety? And how can you tell the difference between hesitation and full-blown anxiety?

"What’s important to remember is that we, as humans, are very resilient and it’s likely that people felt overwhelmed by the idea of lockdown when it first happened. Many of us adjusted quickly and we can adjust just as quickly back to 'normal' life," said Sokarno.

However, if you're having trouble sleeping, noticing physical symptoms of anxiety or already feeling completely exhausted at the mere thought of re-entry, you may be dealing with more than reasonable hesitation.

According to Sokarno, here are some common signs you might be experiencing re-entry anxiety:

1. You're worried about returning to your old life.

"Perhaps someone might be worried about returning to their old life - transitioning back to a full-time job, commute or juggling childcare routines can feel overwhelming," she said.

2. You feel more scared than excited about 'freedom day'.

"If you’re feeling nervous, stressed, scared or more apprehensive than excited about 'freedom day' (and life afterwards), you may be experiencing re-entry anxiety."

Image: Getty 

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3. You're already feeling stressed about post-pandemic life.

"You might be feeling stressed, anxious, overwhelmed or an array of mixed feelings about life after lockdown and this could mean you’re suffering from this phenomenon."

4. You're imagining different scenarios.

"You could also be over-thinking future scenarios and playing out worst-case scenarios in your head. These types of symptoms can show that someone could be suffering from re-entry anxiety."

Okay. How many of those did you just check off the list?

How to navigate re-entry.

While there may be a government plan in place for the easing of restrictions, that's not to say you have to go in headfirst. It's all about easing yourself back into it (as much as you can) and trying to find a balance that works for you.

This might mean taking a step back on the social front, and only meeting up with one close friend for the first few times and seeing how you feel. Or, if your place of work permits it, striking a balance between working from home and working from the office for the first few weeks.

Below, Sokarno lists seven ways to navigate re-entry: 

1. Be kind to yourself.

"Please don’t worry if you’re not feeling excited about post-lockdown life. We’ve all been through (and adjusted) to a really challenging time, so if you’re feeling anxious, show yourself some love and compassion," she said.

2. Take things at your own pace.

While social media might make you feel otherwise, having excitement about 'freedom day' and getting 'back to reality' is a completely individualised thing. 

"Try not to worry too much about how everyone else is reacting to going to post-lockdown life. Instead, expose yourself to the new way of life at your own pace," said Sokarno.

3. Don't avoid things entirely.

It's important to note, though - don't completely reject the change. It'll only make things more difficult in the long-run.

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"While it might feel like the easiest way to overcome re-entry anxiety, please don’t avoid things altogether. Instead, take it slow, say yes to the things you know are important and gradually build up from there. Try to keep a good balance of being social and taking time for self-care."

4. Ease your way into it.

Pssst: You don't have to go from zero to a hundred. Take it at your own pace.

"Okay, so you might not want to go from spending every night home alone watching Netflix to spending every night surrounded by people at a party. This could feel overwhelming, so it’s better to start off small and ease your way into it. That could mean meeting a friend for coffee first instead of overwhelming yourself at a large gathering."

5. Re-frame unhelpful thoughts.

Sokarno said it’s easy to get caught in a mental cycle of thinking worst-case scenario so try to catch yourself when you do it. 

"Try to reframe any unhelpful thoughts to find a different way to view the situation. Challenge any unhelpful thoughts with more positive scenarios." 

6. Focus on what you can control.

"If new situations or routines feel overwhelming, try to keep a sense of control over the things that you can control. This could mean your daily habits like exercising in the mornings or spending some time meditating – keep all those beneficial habits as a priority."

7. Turn to support networks.

Above all, know that you're not alone in how you feel right now.

"Remind yourself that we’ve just experienced a global health pandemic, and it’s okay if you need help in getting through it. Turn to your support networks, whether that be friends, family, loved ones or even a professional.

"Lifeline and Beyond Blue are services that provide free over-the-phone counselling with trained experts who can help you to understand your feelings.

"Services like Lysn provide access to psychologists via phone or video chat, which can be accessed from the comfort of your own home around the clock. These services can be instrumental in providing the support you need to help get back to life post-lockdown."

Life has changed. And it's going to change again. But we all need to move at our own pace.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

How do you feeling about returning to 'normal life' after lockdown? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section below.

Feature Image: Getty

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