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Why do we feel uneasy about a ‘new normal’?
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Stay-at-home orders are starting to lift and many are returning to work. But why do we feel anxious about resuming our usual routines?
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Ever since we were first confined to our homes, we’ve daydreamed about the return to normal life, from the exhilarating to the mundane. We want to visit our favourite pubs, theatres or shops, and we suddenly feel an odd nostalgia for taking the train, trying on new clothes or even shaking hands.

But as mandatory lockdowns around the world start to ease and businesses slowly open their doors, many of us who are not healthcare providers or essential workers are facing a puzzling dilemma: we feel anxious about resuming our normal routines, even though they’re precisely what we’ve been looking forward to.

We can’t predict exactly how our workplaces and commutes will change to combat coronavirus risks. Still, as we gear up to resume life outside the home, understanding the causes behind our apprehension is key to successfully managing the transition when the time finally comes.

What, exactly, makes us feel uneasy about our looming return to work? BBC Worklife spoke to Dr Karen Cassiday, clinical psychologist and managing director of The Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, and Dr David Rosmarin, founder of the Center for Anxiety in New York and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, about the contributing factors.  

Lockdown is easing – but why aren’t I jumping for joy?

For months, we have wallowed in a state of high existential uncertainty, which has resulted in an enormous amount of stress, says Cassiday. As infection rates dip and swell, orders from our local and national leaders shift and concern for the safety of our loved ones grows, living in a state of confusion and worry has become the norm. “Our bodies have been stuck in a high idle mode of stress response and this results in feeling tired, sad, irritable and worn out,” says Cassiday.

We will still continue to suffer the same things that we are experiencing now, just with less social isolation – Karen Cassiday

These feelings won’t magically disappear when lockdown lifts. For the foreseeable future, “we will still continue to suffer the same things that we are experiencing now, just with less social isolation”, she says. This is part of the reason why, for many of us, the idea of resuming our normal routines isn’t sparking positivity.

When tackling a problem, having a defined role can make us feel like we’re more in control of the situation, adds Cassiday. But due to the nature of the pandemic, we’ve been forced into a position of powerlessness. “We are, in effect, being asked to do nothing by staying at home… We all cope better with uncertainty when we feel like there is something specific that we can do to make things better and solve a problem.” Returning to work may provide structure to our days, but it will not remedy this feeling of powerlessness over the pandemic.

And despite the downsides of living in quarantine, the few benefits that have emerged will make the transition back to work even more stressful when they’re taken away, says Rosmarin. “More sleep due to less commuting and working time, more time with family and less social pressure” are things many of us will miss once lockdown lifts.

“So, if people have mixed emotions about the ‘return to normal’ that seems perfectly healthy and expected to me,” he says.

Is it OK to feel a bit emotionally exhausted?

“Definitely and a half,” says Rosmarin. Even after lockdown lifts, he expects symptoms of depression, anxiety, irritability and even anger to persist for several months – in many cases triggered by relationship troubles, which can be exacerbated by such a long period in close quarters.

“There are clear trends that marital strife and even domestic abuse have been on the rise,” says Rosmarin, “especially in families that were struggling before the pandemic.” For the millions who have lost work or been furloughed, the financial insecurity has only intensified emotional exhaustion. Parents are having to decide when children should return to school and if facilities are opening up. There’s also navigating the process of working out what’s best not just for you, but for those you love – it’ll likely is continue through the summer and beyond.

When lockdown lifts, many of us will miss having more sleep due to less commuting and working time, more time with family and less social pressure (Credit: Alamy)

When lockdown lifts, many of us will miss having more sleep due to less commuting and working time, more time with family and less social pressure (Credit: Alamy)

Work pressure, meanwhile, may not have let up; people who find themselves caught in endless work-related Zoom meetings are no more immune to mental fatigue. “The strain of trying to read other people's expressions and interact when there is a short time delay due to the video feed is very tiring,” says Cassiday. “We have to expend more effort just to interact on videoconferencing than we would if we were face to face or on a phone call.” The stress that comes from these kinds of interactions also elevates our cortisol levels, which can in turn disrupt the quality of our sleep and moods, she adds.

Cassiday and Rosmarin agree that it won’t be easy to shake lockdown-induced exhaustion as we begin to readjust to a standard routine – and that it’s okay to ease into the transition. “This has been a bona fide international crisis of the highest order and the disruption will likely have impact [sic] on our emotional states for some time,” says Rosmarin.

I’m worried about being around more people – why is that?

Being confined to our homes has allowed us to shift into a quieter and more peaceful pace of living, says Cassiday, so returning to commuting may seem unappealing. “The truth is that rushing to work and standing in crowded trains is stressful and very likely not an ideal situation for any person,” she says, and is one reason “many people preferred to work from home part-time prior to the pandemic”.

As we return to public transport and our offices, we will likely be forced to interact with these shared spaces in new ways. Scientists predict that social distancing guidelines will stay in place until a vaccine is produced or herd immunity occurs, which will take time, says Cassiday. Until then, the procedures and etiquette within common areas will feel unfamiliar.

The lack of stress associated with getting up early to be on time and perform at work has been a huge stress relief – David Rosmarin

“We may also be returning to workplaces that have lost workers to Covid-19 whom we could not properly mourn,” she adds. “We now have the task of changing our perspective from a short-term ‘trying to flatten the curve’ mentality to a long-term ‘new normal coping with a world pandemic’ mentality.”

Rosmarin has learned from his patients that there are also some advantages to quarantine that may disappear with a return to the workplace. Many who suffer from shyness or social anxiety have fared “well” during lockdown because they have been able to avoid their fears of social interaction, he says. For others who struggle with depression, “the lack of stress associated with getting up early to be on time and perform at work has been a huge stress relief”.

“I don’t think we should or can judge anyone for having mixed feelings about getting back to work,” he adds.

What are the best ways to handle my anxiety through this period?

When we resume our routines, we must remember that attempting to minimise our anxiety about the transition will only make it more difficult. The goal should not be to pretend the anxiety doesn’t exist or to race towards a feeling of normality, “but rather to accept that it’s present and bravely choose to exist and thrive with one’s anxiety,” says Rosmarin.

He encourages people with social anxiety − perhaps reinforced by this long period of isolation − to “approach strangers, speak with their bosses, or otherwise do things that make them uncomfortable” when lockdown lifts. Anxiety doesn’t kill, he says, but our reactions to it can shape how resilient we are going forward. “If right away when we recognise that it’s coming, we simply brace ourselves and posture towards acceptance, it tends to decrease.”

The brain and body cannot tell the difference between a false alarm and a true alarm for danger – Karen Cassiday

Cassiday says we must also understand that the “brain and body cannot tell the difference between a false alarm and a true alarm for danger. It reacts the same to a scary movie as it does to your near miss of being hit by a bus”. By recognising that anxiety is a signal for a potential danger, and not necessarily an imminent threat to our safety, we can begin to use relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation or prayer to abate the feeling.

As we return to our commutes, workplaces and the outside world, Rosmarin says that feeling uneasy and ungrounded will be part of the ‘new normal’ for some time. And although we’re sure to face varying levels of anxiety as we go through the motions, we should take solace in the newfound acceptance and inclusivity around mental health struggles that have developed in the wake of the pandemic.

“This crisis has shown us that ‘normal’ means that we are human beings,” says Rosmarin. “We struggle with challenges, and that’s OK.”

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