“No man is an island,” John Donne once wrote, but the 17th-century poet might have composed a different verse if he’d been alive in 2020.
The past few months have, for most people, been unlike anything they’ve experienced before. Social circles have tightened, perhaps even been completely cut off, leaving many around the world in the company of only a precious few amid the ongoing pandemic.
For those living alone and encouraged to stay at home, perhaps they have not been in the presence of another soul for weeks, if not months. It has, for many, taken quite some time to adjust to this new, lonely normal.
But, as restrictions in many countries begin to ease, even if only a little, we are faced with a new reality. How do we adjust to being around others again after so long in our tiny bubbles?
If the idea of being back in the office, a crowded mall or on a busy beach – even with everyone wearing a mask – makes your heart beat faster and your palms begin to moisten, you’re not alone.
“Many people are feeling anxious about lockdowns lifting and are reluctant to leave their homes,” says Dr Sarah Rasmi, psychologist and founder of Dubai’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre. “It is important to remember that we are resilient and adaptable. We have adjusted to our ‘new normal’, to an extent, and we will also readjust to spending more time outside of our homes.”
Accepting that we will not instantly return to being the way we were, much as how everything around us will not instantly return to the way it was, is key.
“It is important to be patient and gentle with ourselves as we start to exit the safe cocoon we have created at home and increase our interaction with the outside world,” Rasmi says. “It will be tough and it will take time, but we will get there.”
Be honest about what you want to achieve
But why are we feeling so anxious about resuming ‘normal’ life, after months of pining for it?
“A large part of our anxiety around the Covid-19 pandemic has centred on the ambiguity, novelty and unpredictability of the virus itself,” Rasmi explains. “We tend to feel stressed, worried and anxious when we do not have much control in our lives.”
There are, however, myriad ways to make yourself feel as though you are reclaiming a sense of control, be it limiting the amount of media you consume or establishing a regular exercise routine.
When it comes to fighting that internal battle, meanwhile, facing your fears might seem overwhelming, but it could be the quickest way to restore a sense of normality.
“It’s very normal to have nerves about being around people again, because there’s a been a lot of fear over the past few months. The response to that is going to be fear-based decision-making, which is a totally normal process,” says Laura Brennan, a counselling psychologist who works with Dubai’s community initiative Darkness into Light.
“But the number one piece of advice is to let your decisions be guided by courage. So if you’re in a situation where you’re wondering ‘should I go out or not?’, take that step and see how you feel. When it’s all aligned to government protocols, it’s up to you to have the courage and take the first steps.”
If you still feel unready to take those tentative first steps back into the outside world, but are facing pressure from outside sources, it’s important to listen to your intuition.
“Have an honest conversation with yourself about what you want to achieve, Brennan advises.
In the UAE, for example, restrictions were eased at the end of April to allow workers to return to the office if “absolutely necessary”. While an office’s capacity is currently limited, if you have been asked to return to work and are filled with reticence, it’s important to clearly communicate with your boss.
“Speak to your employer, speak to your colleagues, and ask if there’s a different way to approach returning to work because you feel uncomfortable,” says Brennan. “Maybe in a week’s time you’ll have less anxiety, so try and find pre-emptive measures that you and your employer can collaboratively make to ease your way back in.”
‘We see people as threats’
A rise in the amount of people worldwide feeling stressed during the ongoing pandemic is understandable.
A UK survey of 2,250 people between 18 and 75 by researchers at King’s College London, for example, found almost half of people felt more anxious or depressed as a result of the outbreak.
But, even once the cases of Covid-19 have abated, whenever that may be, will the crisis have left scars on our mental health in the long term?
"The pandemic has already transformed our social relationships. It is reasonable to expect that many people will feel very uncomfortable leaving their homes and interacting with others as the restrictions are lifted," says Rasmi. "A recent poll conducted by the University of Washington – Maryland shows that the majority of American adults polled are very uncomfortable with the thought of eating out or going to a clothing store."
As we have been encouraged to practise physical social distancing, keeping two metres apart from others, to curb the spread of the virus, that separation has created a mental association that people are a risk factor.
“We have started to see other people as potential carriers of the virus and therefore potential threats to our health, safety and well-being,” says Rasmi.
Restoring a sense of trust
One side-effect of seeing other people as a source of danger is that we may feel more mistrustful of both strangers and those we are close to. We may know where we have been and who we have seen, but the rest is out of our hands.
That is, however, an emotion we need to learn to let go of.
“When we have that mistrust, it creates judgment. Then we start criticising others as we would criticise ourselves – if we are coming from a place of judgement we are uber-critical with our own self-talk, and that will project outwards,” says Brennan. “For me, the bottom line is recognising that we can’t control the actions of others, so therefore we look only at controlling our own actions. You can remove yourself, you can walk away, you can do multiple things for your own safety without having to think about what others do at all.”
If you are still uneasy being around a friend or a family member, Rasmi advises having a frank, calm conversation.
“You cannot control what other people do and who they see, but you can be clear about what makes you feel comfortable and the rules that you would like to enforce when it comes to your own family,” she says. “These conversations can be tricky – avoiding criticism and judgment while focusing on what you need will increase the chance that your friends will hear and accept your point of view.”
Ultimately, though, focusing on the actions of others will have a negative effect on our mental health, pandemic or no pandemic.
“The majority of people focus on other people rather than themselves, and that’s one of the core factors in creating depression and anxiety,” says Brennan. “We’re always so worried about what people think of us, but when we actually focus on ourselves, we can live a life that is meaningful to us.”
Above all, be kind
Not everyone will be feeling a sense of anxiety about emerging back into the world; for some, it is a welcome return filled with feelings of excitement and joy. But it is important to remember that you may be surrounded by people finding the easing of restrictions overwhelming.
In that case, think back to a personal struggle to help empathise with their experience.
“It can also help to validate their perspective by saying something along the lines of ‘I can see where you are coming from and why you might feel that way’,” says Rasmi. “This type of statement does not necessarily mean that you agree with their perspective, it simply means that you can see it from their point of view.”
The most important advice Brennan offers can be summed up in two simple, but crucial, words.
“Be kind. Stop judging. Every single person is going to respond to stressful situations in their own unique way based on their life circumstances and belief systems,” she says. “You don’t need to read 10 textbooks or watch a Ted talk, it’s very simple, universal human values that you just have to remember and activate.”
Yet, when in a place of fear, thoughts of kindness are often replaced with those of anger and shame.
“Ask yourself, ‘who do you want to be when you show up to the world’?” Brennan advises. “There are many people who will say there are a kind person and they are – they’re generous, they’re caring, they have empathy – but are they still kind in a stressful situation? People need to have a real, honest conversation with themselves, and it’ll be the most important conversation they ever have.”
Tough talking aside, there is, perhaps, a silver lining to be found amid this uncertain time.
“We were in a global mental health crisis before Covid-19, and that will be amplified because of it,” Brennan says. “But one of the great advantages of the pandemic is that it has put mental health in the spotlight.
“All of sudden, it has become a priority, as proved by the introduction of services such as online counselling. So I do feel that we will be in a much stronger position to support and practise non-judgment when it comes to mental health support after Covid-19.”