I’m starting to see friends and neighbours who are anxious and fearful about going out – and for a while I felt it, too. Not so much because they fear catching the virus (although that is, of course, still very important), but because they haven’t been out for so long.
A neighbour tells me she feels anxious about going out because she hasn’t been farther than the end of our road for nearly three months, and hasn’t driven her car, which she is worried about.
Another friend says she has been moving about in our local town within a radius of about four miles, but feels anxious about driving outside of it.
These are people who happily drive to continental Europe in normal circumstances and have a wide circle of friends and activities.
I forced myself to drive out to meet a friend for a picnic last week, once restrictions had eased. Then I made myself queue to go into a store, just to keep in touch with that aspect of life. (I’m over 70, so have been having home deliveries.) Actually being inside a store again reminded me of going into a sweet shop as a child. I now feel much more confident to do more, including driving my car again.
But what would you advise? Is it normal to feel like this, and so disoriented? Should I encourage my friends to do as I did and introduce themselves back into the world a little where they can (very vulnerable groups excepted)?
It’s completely understandable to feel like this, although lockdown has affected people differently. Some can’t wait to get out there again; some are nervous and have lost confidence.
It’s not dissimilar to people who have spent time in controlled environments – such as the army, prison, even boarding school. Some flourish when they leave, others need help to acclimatise. Of course it’s more complicated at the moment because the threat of the virus is still there, so it’s not a case of “open the doors and go forth freely”.
I turned to Dr Poul Rohleder, a psychologist and psychotherapist at Essex University (bpc.org.uk). He explained that routines are very important for many people because they “help us move through spaces and time, they give us a sense that things are relatively safe, and secure, and we feel we can predict things. But with lockdown these routines [and our network of safety] have disappeared.”
Of course, for some people, for whom home is a safe place, new routines have been established, although they tend to be “smaller routines and ones that don’t involve going into a wider space and for a longer time, unlike those before,” Rohleder adds.
So our world has shrunk, and expanding it again – safely – can seem onerous for some. “When we go out into our immediate neighbourhood, we may see familiar faces, things may look OK. We think, ‘This isn’t too bad’ – but we might imagine things are worse ‘out there’, if we go farther afield.”
There are also those for whom the abdication of responsibility has been a welcome relief from everyday life, because a “higher authority” has told us what to do. “In situations like these,” Rohleder says, “the control and responsibility have sat with the government; you have rules and regulations to follow. Now the responsibility is moving back to us, the individual, and we have to make our own risk assessments.”
For some, having that control again can feel overwhelming – not least because we have conflicting information about how to keep ourselves safe.
So for those who want to venture forth safely, but feel trepidatious, Rohleder advises “taking gradually longer steps while maintaining social distancing. Maybe walk to a shop a bit farther away, so your circle of safety becomes larger.”
Remember that confidence comes from doing the same thing repeatedly. For those feeling shaky, it’s worth breaking down the different factors and working out what you feel unsure about. If it’s a trip to the supermarket, is it the time spent in the shop, or the drive? Could you walk instead? Could you have a socially distanced meeting with a friend to introduce a bit of familiarity? Ask: what would make this a bit more achievable?
I think you’ve done the perfect thing, and I’m pleased it worked for you. But some of your friends and neighbours may need to take smaller steps at first. And some may be happy with a more focused world for a while longer, and that’s OK, too.
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