It’s June, 2020, and here in the UK the coronavirus lockdown is relaxing. (Actually, it’s not at all relaxing, it’s extremely stress-inducing, but you know what I mean.) Like most people, I’ve struggled with isolation and stress during these early stages of the pandemic but now that some aspects of daily life are returning to normal I’m noticing an additional anxiety: fear of normality itself.
It may only be small, but it seems to be real. A slight revulsion at being around other people. An internal cringe when watching handshakes and hugs in pre-lockdown media. Being uncomfortable imagining spending time with friends—being together indoors?? How did we ever do that?!
Apparently, I’m not alone. We’ve internalised the concepts of virus safety so deeply that everywhere I look on social media there’s people worrying about going out in public and seeing friends & family.
Is this a sensible way to feel? Let’s pull apart the feeling and see.
I’m going to ignore for now the question of whether things should be returning to normal. I have absolutely no influence over the national response to the virus—or, indeed, over anything at all—and any attempt to influence events would only make me feel more helpless. All we can do is manage our own actions and emotions.
I notice in myself a temptation to simply dismiss this anxiety as irrational. 99% of my life was spent without worrying about viruses, so why not just return to that mode?
But anxiety management isn’t about ‘proving fears wrong’. In fact, trying to do so often feeds the fear, leading to a spiral of debating with myself over whether these worries are even real problems, and, if so, how much of a problem they are. Anxiety loves nothing more than this sort of endless internal debate. It feeds on it.
So I’ll short-circuit the “should I be worried at all?” question by concluding immediately that it’s rational to be—at least a little—concerned. This is still a global pandemic and a horrible disease. Nobody wants to catch it, and nobody wants their loved ones to catch it, either. Beyond that, I won’t engage with the question of how worried to be. The correct answer is “a bit worried”.
This does nothing to solve the problem, but it does prevent the extra problem of beating myself up for worrying at all, which often turns out to be a large part of any given anxiety for me: “I shouldn’t worry about this” adds nothing, and only makes me feel worse.
After that, there are two important elements to consider: how should I behave, and how should I feel? Both depend on:
- how prevalent the virus is in this area at this time
- personal risk, and the risk of others
- trust in authorities to competently manage the transition back to normality
- trust in authorities to competently keep the viral spread low in future
The mere act of writing these down is helpful. It’s freeing to recognise that each of these factors changes constantly, and that most are outside of our control. Left to its own devices, my brain naturally worries about the big picture. But unless there’s something I can usefully do to influence events, I’m better off focusing on how to best live my life in the current circumstances.
Already, much of the initial anxiety has turned out to be displaced from other worries, from taking on responsibilities which aren’t mine, or from questioning the ‘correctness’ of the feeling. After all that, I’m now left with the actual underlying anxiety about normality, at a manageable level.
(This is a common pattern: the actual anxiety about any given problem tends to be smaller once I remove all the other feelings that are attached. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done, though I do believe it is a learnable skill.)
Some of the root anxiety is doubtless good old fear of change. Humans are creatures of habit, and just as it was shocking to suddenly be lonely and isolated and unable to nip out for a simple coffee, it’s shocking to reverse the process. I expect this feeling to fade rapidly.
The remaining rational fear of the virus is best handled by obeying medical advice: wear masks, don’t spend time indoors with other people, keep distance, and so on. Again, it’s not my responsibility to single-handedly rid the world of COVID; I just have to make sensible decisions to minimise exposure for myself and others.
Beyond that, there isn’t much anxiety left. This is surprising to me. There’s nothing there: just a simple plan to not worry about things I can’t control, and to take sensible steps to avoid unnecessary exposure to the virus. After that, everything is up to fate.
Part of me wishes I’d arrived at another conclusion. It doesn’t look cool to come up with such an obvious, unsatisfying answer. But it is what it is.
I like to share these processes of unpicking knots of anxiety just to demonstrate what handling mental health and emotions sometimes looks like for me. I’m aware that just because I find this train of thought freeing doesn’t make it a universal answer for others. But my hope is that we can all learn to get to the root of our feelings and figure out how to manage them better for ourselves, and that—particularly if your brain works like mine—then it may be useful to see my thoughts laid out.
Either way, I hope you’re well and that everything is back to normal—or ideally better—very soon. <3
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.