The impact of the pandemic on our mental health won't just end when restrictions do
"Check-in with yourself and pay attention to what you feel."
As restrictions continue to ease, normal life gets closer and closer. This indescribable chapter is slowly coming to an end after 16 months of masks, rising case numbers, and NPHET briefings.
Are you ready for it because I don't think I am?
The easing of lockdown has been welcomed with open arms, but it's important to remember that there are people out there who simply aren't ready to return to normal life.
I'll happily raise my hand and admit that I'm still feeling pretty anxious about going out and about when COVID-19 is still prevalent in our communities. The re-opening of the country has certainly not been smooth sailing, but there is a real sense that we should all just get on with things and that isn't okay.
A lot of people have suffered serious mental health lapses over the past 16 months. People living with mental health disorders have spiralled and others have developed anxiety or suffered from bouts of depression. It's only natural to feel this way considering the sheer amount of collective trauma the world had to go through, but shaking it off and slipping back into our old lives is only going to cause more harm than good.
If, like me, you're feeling nervous about the re-opening then don't worry. You are perfectly entitled to ease back into this chapter as slowly as you want. Speaking about the impact lockdowns, isolation and months of never-ending bad news have had on our mental health, Positive Psychology & Coach Trainer Rebecca Lockwood said big changes can cause a lot of anxiety.
"As humans, we are naturally created to be able to predict what's going to happen and naturally we like to have a routine. Coming out of lockdown will be a big change for most people as the unusual circumstances became a new normal for most. When these restrictions are lifted it will create a big change in most people's lives, relationships, and routines."
"This will naturally create some panic for a lot of people because this is how our brains are wired. When we find our comfort zones most people like to stay there as it’s normal, it’s routine and it’s seen as a safe place to stay. Staying at home and having created a new routine will be the new normal and in the new comfort zone. When we start to move out of our comfort zones it causes the feeling of uncertainty, anxiety, and overwhelms us.
"This is what we all experienced at the beginning of lockdown, and now it will be having the reverse effect when we come out of lockdown," she explained.
Some days I'll feel excited about being able to go for dinner with friends, visiting our local pub or simply going somewhere that isn't Tesco. Planning days out with people I haven't seen since 2019 fills me with joy, but then the anxious thoughts take over and wash away any hopeful feelings.
Luckily, we don't have to suffer alone. There are so many things you can do to help ease these anxieties like taking things slowly. Just because others are heading out to 101 different places a week doesn't mean you have to. If you feel like a trip to the seaside with your sister is enough then that is perfectly fine.
Lockwood said, "If you feel uncomfortable and out of sorts, take things as slowly as you feel works for you if you can. Understand that it is normal to feel a bit nervous about having the freedom to do what you want again and take it easy."
"Take notice of how you are feeling and know that this is ok. It may even feel as though you are doing things for the first time again for some. Check-in with yourself and pay attention to what you feel and think at this time," she stressed.
It's really important to realise that you're not the only one feeling this way. "A lot of people will be feeling anxious at the moment, and it’s normal to feel this way. Coming back out of your comfort zone can cause the physical effects of anxiety, so be kind to yourself."
"Speak to someone about how you feel, don't just brush it under the rug, it's normal to feel like this. You may be surprised to hear that others are feeling the same and need someone to talk to. By opening up about how you feel and think right now could also help others feeling this way right now."
I feel like we haven't even had time to process everything we've been through since March 2020. Returning to normal life without letting ourselves heal just feels like a disservice to our past selves. We deserve the time and space to come to terms with everything we've been through. The isolation, the loneliness, the hopelessness. The Government is constantly telling us to take care of our mental well-being, but walking isn't going to wash away the post-pandemic trauma so many people are carrying around.
The Irish Times reports that a “tsunami of mental health need will arise sometime after the initial pandemic peak, will persist for months to years afterward and will be compounded by the economic impact of the pandemic”.
Only 6% of the health budget is spent on mental health so it comes as no surprise to learn that mental health services are not fully staffed in Ireland.
Dr Karen O'Connor tells The Irish Times that there is more work to be done. Awareness isn't the only step. "There’s no evidence that if you walk every day and you do mindfulness, that you’ll prevent yourself from developing a psychotic illness . . . So the young people that I see, they would blame themselves or feel that other people are blaming them.”
"I went and worked in Australia in mental health in 2008-2009 and I feel like we’re kind of where they were then. In Australia, they transitioned on from talking and awareness campaigns into funding new services.”
Talking and having these honest and raw conversations is important, but we need to move beyond the talking stage so people can actually get the treatment that will make them better. We need stronger investment in therapy and for it to be more affordable, encouraging people to talk to their doctor about medication is another step we must take. We need to remind people that support goes beyond Leo Varadkar telling us to go for a walk and to cut down on alcohol.
There's no doubt there are millions of people out there who are carrying the weight of the last 16 months on their shoulders, not knowing what steps to take or who to turn to. They don't know what the next step is because we never moved by the 'raising awareness' stage. Expecting people to just get over everything they went through during the pandemic is only going to cause more harm than good. We can't continue to do what Irish people tend to do and brush this under the carpet.
Filling our diaries up with brunch dates, seaside trips, and weekend getaways is like putting a plaster over an open wound. The Government may think they've done enough to help those suffering, but we have so much further to go. The re-opening alone isn't going to heal the mental health pandemic that is looming.
"Suppression and avoidance are common coping behaviours in response to uncomfortable feelings and emotions. So, I think that people will be tempted to ignore the damage the lockdowns have done to them on a personal level. However, there has been huge noise in the media and government rhetoric about the impact that the lockdowns will have on people's mental health in the short-term and longer-term."
"I am hopeful that people will act with collective compassion as we reintroduce ourselves back into post lockdown normality. Understanding and compassion are going to be integral to the effectiveness of getting back to normal, both to ourselves and to our communities as lockdown eases," said cognitive behavioural specialist, Jessica Adams.
"The best thing that I believe people can do is to invest in themselves (therapy, educational podcasts, online courses, etc) as everything reopens. Investing time in gaining a heightened sense of awareness will bring clarity to our thoughts and feelings. If we feel clear about why we feel and think the way we do, we will naturally experience a level of acceptance; and acceptance brings peace," she added.
We need to acknowledge and process the trauma before this next chapter, so we can enter this new stage of our lives without the black dog following behind us.