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How to overcome re-entry anxiety

If you’re still anxious about COVID-19 restrictions being eased, read this guidance from an NHS expert and access Good Thinking’s wellbeing resources.

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In July 2020, a survey by Good Thinking, Partnership for Young London and TikTok revealed that almost a third (31%) of the young Londoners (aged 14 to 24) who took part were only going outside once a week or less. 

Having followed government advice and stayed at home for many months, you might also have found it hard to leave the house when restrictions were eased. Indeed, you might still feel uncomfortable about going into the place where you work or study. 

As the mental health charity Mind notes, “There’s no ‘normal’ response to lockdown or lockdown easing” – you might feel stressed, angry, confused, reluctant or powerless. It’s all part of what is known as ‘re-entry anxiety’. 

In this article, Tracey Taylor, Cognitive Behaviour Therapist at the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, and Clinical Lead for the National OCD Service, responds to a question that came up in a webinar by The Student Room in summer 2020. Tracey also kindly spoke to us for a Good Thinking podcast about OCD

As we adapt to living with COVID-19, you might still have some concerns. We hope you find Tracey’s advice and Good Thinking’s mental health resources helpful.

Question from participant in The Student Room webinar (summer 2020):

I feel so anxious about keeping up friendships but also keeping social distancing rules and not getting ill. I am an anxious person anyway and very worried about health...

I have been so careful about lockdown but, now we can meet with people, I’m scared about them getting too close or coughing and I would get the virus. But I also hate being in my room at home and lonely without seeing anyone.

I’m in a Catch-22 and I would like to know how I can lose some of my anxiety and not lose my friends by refusing to see or speak to anyone outdoors, because I have to go out some time.

Response from Tracey Taylor, Cognitive Behaviour Therapist (summer 2020):

Thank you for sharing something that so many of us are feeling at the moment. I really sense just how frightening the current situation is for you – and for so many of us – during the largest global pandemic of our time. Everyone has been scared by it and you’re not alone feeling as you do.

It’s helpful that you recognise that you have previously struggled with anxiety and that the pandemic has hijacked that, making you worry excessively. The problem with anxiety is that it makes it so hard to assess any risk, any threat to your health, and we often overestimate the risks.

In reality, you may know that you are no more likely to become infected than anyone else, and that your young age is a positive factor. Even if you did become infected, you should have a good recovery. But anxiety makes you think you are the exception to that and somehow more at risk. And, to be fair to you, nobody can be completely certain, given that so much has happened so quickly in a short space of time.

The Government has listened to experts in infection control and has produced guidelines to help us steer our way through the anxious and confusing feelings that come with the pandemic. So, follow the guidelines, but do no more. As the risks become lower and we emerge from lockdown, the rules will start to become more relaxed, and that is bound to be scary.

So, how can you start to go outside more? It’s a good idea to experiment by taking some small steps that feel reasonably safe. Work out what motivates you and what you can manage – too much too fast can be overwhelming. You might like to:

  • Exercise on your own outside – a regular walk, run or bike ride is good for your mental health as well as your physical health
  • Meet a small group of your friends at the park or another outdoor space 
  • Wear a face covering to help you manage your anxiety, especially in closed spaces, such as shops
  • Think about the costs and benefits of continuing to stay indoors all the time. What will you miss out on if you don’t make any changes?
  • Write down the activities you once did that made you really happy and work out how you can start doing them again

It’s so important to try some experiments like these as they can help you rebuild your confidence and recognise that the world is not as dangerous as you might think.

To start with, perhaps you could set yourself a small, specific and achievable goal. For example, if you’re feeling anxious about being outside, could you go for a short walk (just a few minutes) before breakfast each day and see how this feels? You could make it a little more challenging once you feel OK about being outside.

In time, these small successes may make it easier to be with your friends and get back to your usual routine.

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