Ask an expert: COVID-19 – coping with the ‘new normal’

5 July 2020

Sarita Robinson, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), looks at how the easing of lockdown and the ‘new normal’ may cause fresh anxieties and mental health issues for some people.

With the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic, England went into lockdown in March, plunging all of us into a totally unfamiliar world with drastic changes to our way of life. Now that lockdown restrictions are easing, the ‘new normal’ we are now entering may bring positive benefits for many but for some it will create new anxieties and real fear over the prospect of stepping back into a very different version of everyday life.

Dr Sarita Robinson, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), looks at how lockdown easing could create fresh mental health issues for many people and examines what steps they can take to take to reduce anxiety when they venture back out again for the first time.

How have people coped with the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK?

Generally, people have coped very well with the outbreak. Although people's mental health may have been negatively impacted considering that the pandemic was unexpected and the UK had to impose restrictions that we have not seen in during most people's lifetimes, people have shown amazing resilience. We have seen lots of helpful and proactive behaviour, with people building a stronger sense of community, talking to their neighbours and delivering shopping to those who were shielding.

People with pre-existing mental health conditions, those with caring responsibilities, members of the LGBT+ community and those facing domestic violence have been especially vulnerable during lockdown. During the National Emergency it is really important to remember that it is ok not to be ok and we should watch out for each other and seek professional help if needed.

In some respects, the pandemic may have actually brought beneficial effects mentally for people who may struggle with the hectic nature of normal everyday life with the relative calm and simplicity that lockdown has brought. But for others the last few months may have been very difficult, with people facing financial difficulties and losing loved ones. However, with the right help and support I am confident we can all come through this crisis.

How do you think the easing of lockdown measures will affect people in terms of adjusting to a 'new normal'. Could this potentially create fresh issues for some in terms of mental adjustment?

Change is always difficult. It was hard to get used to the lockdown measures when they came in. And now that lockdown is easing, we are going to see a similar period of transition needed as we get used to the "new normal". It will be lovely to go out to the shops and to see friends and family (even if it does have to be at a distance). However, the mental load of having to get used to wearing a mask, carrying hand sanitizer and being careful not to get to close to others is going to be challenging and, in some cases, distressing for people. However, after a few weeks these new Covid-19 measures will become second nature to us, and we will get used to the "new normal."

Which groups of people do you think may be particularly vulnerable to increased anxiety with the easing of restrictions?

People who have a long-term health conditions may find the easing of lockdown and the return to work more anxiety inducing than other. Also, people who are more introverted or those with social anxiety may feel quite fearful of restrictions easing. Whereas lockdown may have provided a kind of temporary shield from those anxieties, there is the possibility of them returning again as people begin to emerge into a ‘new normal’.

It is important to remember that everyone has their own personal level of risk that they find acceptable. Some people are happy to ride motorbikes and go on rollercoasters. However, people who are more risk adverse may find it more difficult to be outside in the world after being at home during lockdown. People who are risk adverse  may also find it much more anxiety inducing to return to work or engage in social activities, such as going to the pub, activities which they have previously enjoyed.

Do you think the 'new normal' environment of face mask wearing, social distancing, long queues outside shops, one-way systems around shops etc will cause fresh anxieties for people when they leave their homes?

People who are risk adverse and worry about catching Covid-19 may actually find some of the Coronavirus reduction measures very reassuring. Having people around you who are being careful to social distance and who wear a mask can help you feel safer.

What could cause people who are risk adverse a great deal of anxiety is when people don't adhere to the guidelines. This is certainly a fear for some in relation to pubs, restaurants and cafes opening. Alcohol intake in pubs, for example, could mean that people are more likely to abandon social distancing when drunk. Likewise, in shopping centres the fear of people being close around you could be very daunting.

What can people do if they feel anxiety about going out of the house after lockdown?

At the moment there is no need to go out to a pub or the cinema if it makes you feel uncomfortable. If you are not personally happy with the risk involved, then it is OK to stay home and socialise with your friends over the internet. However, it you have children who need to return to school or you need to return to work it can be helpful to get as much information about the protections the school/workplace will be putting in place. You can ask for photos of what the school/workplace will look like in advance and discuss the types of protections that would make you feel more comfortable.

Another good method of reducing anxiety is to do a small trip out every day and build on that over a week. So, you might just walk around your local area on the first day but then you can build on that and if you feel comfortable go to your place of work and just stay for a short period of time. Taking it slowly and building up your time outside the home over a number of days can help you get ready to return to work without becoming overwhelmed.

Although it is still acceptable to stay home and not engaged in social activities once lockdown eases it is important to remember that Covid-19 is going to be here for many months. It is likely that some of us are are going to need to adjust so that we find a slightly higher level of risk acceptable.

Finally, if you are very anxious about heading out of the house and this is a barrier to living your life as you wish then you can seek professional support and talk over the issue.

Dr Sarita Robinson
Dr Sarita Robinson