Monday 19th July is being called ‘Freedom Day’ in England, on which the one-metre social distancing rule and working from home order will be dropped, and mask-wearing will no longer be compulsory.
For many, easing of restrictions means social lives are returning to (almost) their pre-pandemic parameters, and the world is beginning to look a bit more 'normal' every day.
How does ‘Freedom Day’ feel for you?
Perhaps you think you ought to feel excited, released, happy, full of hope? The reality is that many people are feeling anxious, stressed and fearful.
For older people and those with compromised or suppressed immune systems, the so-called freedom day is the exact opposite. Eve, who is 34 and unable to work because of disabilities, said the relaxation of the rules will “mean I’m rendered housebound by those who choose not to wear masks”. For those like Eve, the change in restrictions will mean avoiding places where people congregate, offering even fewer opportunities to socialise.
For others, anxiety is triggered by starting to do things we haven’t experienced in a while. Whether it’s being in a crowd, travelling on public transport, hugs or even choosing something to wear after so many months of throwing on loungewear.
Dr Lydia Kearney an expert in social anxiety at the University of Kent’s School of Psychology says: "Any form of anxiety is based on a feeling of danger, and because we've spent a long time hearing about the genuine medical dangers of in-person contact, it's perfectly understandable to feel anxious or uncertain about spending time with other people, even if we're doing so in line with the current guidelines."
It doesn't help that many of us feel under pressure to transition to total normality as seamlessly as possible and to be OK with restrictions lifting. We may be feeling this pressure from society's generally joyful reaction to freedom day, or from members of our inner circle.
This feeling of not being understood by the people around us can leave us feeling really lonely. We can feel lonely even when we have other people in our lives: emotional loneliness is when we feel unseen or misunderstood by our family, friends, partners and co-workers. Feeling as though other people around us don’t understand why we aren't comfortable going shopping or taking the bus can leave us feeling a very real sense of loneliness and disconnection.
Here are a few tips for coping with 'Freedom Day' anxiety and loneliness…
Set your boundaries
We might not have to wear masks soon, but it’s important to consider what you personally feel ready for, and find the boundaries you feel comfortable living by. For example, you might feel comfortable only going to places where you will have personal space, or wearing a mask around people outside of your immediate circle - such as on a bus or in a shop. Perhaps you're ready to socialise in a friend's house, but only if everyone there has a recent negative test. By thinking about what's important in order to feel safe and comfortable ahead of time, you will be more able to avoid situations you don't feel happy with.
Have an honest chat with those close to you
Feelings of loneliness and disconnection can often be managed if you feel able to have an open, honest conversation about how you’re feeling with people you trust. You could try explaining to friends and family how your experiences have led you to feel this way, and clearly outline the level of risk you feel comfortable with. This will hopefully help loved one's to understand and respect that your decisions aren’t based on whether or not you want to see them, but whether or not you feel safe to do so.
Take little steps
You might not feel ready to go to a nightclub, but (if you feel safe enough to do so) you could start by going to the supermarket in the evening when it’s quiet, or to the park to meet a friend you trust. Go at your own pace and remember those boundaries!
One of the worst parts of loneliness and anxiety is that it persuades us we're the only one who's experiencing it, and makes us afraid to reach out because we think other people will judge us. But if Loneliness Awareness Week this year has shown us anything, it’s just how many of us have experienced loneliness recently. The past year and a half have been unprecedented and really scary for all of us – we'd be more surprised to hear someone didn't have any anxiety about the end of restrictions and a 'return to normal life'. So go ahead and give yourself a break!
If you know someone who is feeling anxious, reach out to them and ask them how they’re feeling about changes in restrictions. You could ask if there’s anything you can do to help them feel more comfortable, or just let them know you totally understand if they’d prefer to meet online, or chat on the phone for the time being.
In the past year, Megan from the Marmalade Trust team has found that following positive people on Instagram helpful. Sometimes all you need is someone to cheer you on and remind you that you're doing a great job during such a stormy time. Some of her favourites are Stacie Swift, Action for Happiness, The Happy Newspaper and Matt Haig.
Our team also found this advice on the Mind website about managing feelings around lockdown easing to be helpful.