Life

I'm Afraid to Meet Up with Friends Even Though the Lockdown Has Relaxed

The government may have relaxed the social distancing guidelines, but coronavirus hasn’t gone away.
11 June 2020, 8:30am
friends drinking wine
Photo: Sian Bradley

Last week, Boris Johnson announced that England's lockdown rules would be eased, allowing groups of up to six people to meet outside for the first time since March. Despite the warnings from public health experts that it was too soon to relax social distancing guidelines – and the fact that Britain has one of the worst coronavirus death tolls in Europe – the Prime Minister described it as a "long-awaited joyful moment".

The British public seemed to agree. Even before the new measures came into place, people flocked to beaches and nature spots, with transport unions reporting of "chaos" at seaside rail stations due to increased passenger numbers. WhatsApp groups were flooded with messages from everyone's most extroverted friends, desperate for tins in the park after two months of limited social contact.

But what happens if you don't actually feel that joyful about the lockdown easing? Clearly, the Tories are keen to get people back to work (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the UK is likely to suffer the worst damage from the coronavirus crisis than any in the developed world), but scientific advisors warn that this may come at the expense of our health.

Professor John Edmunds of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine called the move to ease the lockdown a "political decision", while Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, tweeted shortly after Johnson's announcement: "COVID-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England". Hospital staff have also spoken about their fear of dealing with a second wave of infections, with one doctor telling the Financial Times, "I just do not think many doctors have the energy for this to go on."

With this in mind, it's understandable to feel anxious about venturing into the outside world again. An ongoing University College London (UCL) study into how adults feel about the lockdown found that while anxiety and depression levels have fallen as the social distancing guidelines ease, they are still above the reported average.

"It is completely reasonable for people to have anxious thoughts about going back into the outside world," says Kimberley Wilson, a London-based chartered psychologist and author of How to Build a Healthy Brain. "We have spent the last four months being told how dangerous it is to go outside and how doing so could put our own or others' lives at risk. So, even though the messaging has changed, some residual anxiety is completely rational."

Coronavirus is also different for different people. A recent Public Health England review found that the disease has a disproportionate impact on BAME people. The elderly and immunocompromised face greater risk to their health, increasing the personal danger associated with leaving lockdown. "I would encourage members of BAME communities to speak up for their needs in the workplace," says Nikita Quartey, counsellor and founder of Therapyish, a therapy service in north London. "We remember the unfortunate case of Belly Mujinga and the failure of the system to protect her."

Wilson also notes that trepidation about returning to your "old life" may be down to stressors that are unrelated to fear of catching the virus. For those who have been lucky enough to be able to work from home or receive government support during the epidemic, it may have been a welcome relief to say no to social engagements. As the lockdown eases, all that will change.

"I think there are a significant number of people who have felt enormous relief during lockdown," she says. "Perhaps they suffer from social anxiety, maybe they are introverts who have to force themselves into social situations that don't suit them. Maybe they were just exhausted with the relentless pace of modern life. What I mean is that, for some people, the reluctance to return to work may be a reflection that there was something dysfunctional in their lives that they have been able to escape during lockdown."

For many people, though, the thought of venturing back outside while a debilitating virus remains at large is scary, because we don't actually know that much about it. Do we need to wear masks outside? Are takeaway pints safe? Can I pee in my friend's bathroom? Quite literally, who knows! This uncertainty isn't helped by the mixed health advice delivered by the government. Official coronavirus guidelines include lines as contradictory as "work from home, if you can" and "our message is clear: you should go to work" all in a single paragraph. The UCL study also found that English participants rated their confidence in the government’s handling of coronavirus at just 3.5 out of seven.

Dr Dominique Thompson, trained GP and young people's mental health expert, sees this uncertainty as the "root cause" of many people's anxiety right now.

"The best way normally to address that kind of anxiety is to give people nice, clear facts," she says. "The problem is that we don’t have a government that does that, so we have been left – unlike other countries like New Zealand, where they’ve said: 'These are the facts, this is what you’re allowed to do, this is what you’re not allowed to do. Do not break the rules, end of.'"

When the government delivers confusing advice on returning to work or refuses to fire a senior advisor who flagrantly flouts its own advice, it "mixes up people's emotions", Thompson says. She adds: "That makes them feel very stressed and has a knock-on effect for sleep and mood and how they feel in terms of food and eating, and the ability to focus and concentrate."

So, what are some practical things you can do if you feel anxious about leaving the house again? Until we have a vaccine, going outside will be a risk – and this summer looks set to be one of continually weighing up risks. Wilson advises focusing on what you can control. "It's important to focus on the things that are in your control rather than the many things that are not. So, continuing to take the recommended precautions to minimise infection and practicing good self care: protecting sleep, eating well, staying connected with friends and family."

Anxiety can manifest itself physically, but there are things you can do to counteract this. "You may be getting ready to leave the house for the first time in a while and find that your heart is beating at a slightly faster rate than usual," says Quartey. "Your breathing may be more shallow than usual, hands sweating, feeling a bit hot or tummy feeling unsettled. It will be important in those moments to ground yourself in the here and now."

She recommends "pot belly breathing", which involves taking a deep breath in for the count of four, then out for the count of six, making sure that your stomach is rising and falling as you breath. "This will help get your breathing back down to a calm rate and your body into a much calmer state," Quartey explains.

Other grounding techniques include focusing on five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. "Putting our focus into doing this can help bring us back into the here and now, and away from the object of our anxieties that we may be anticipating or pre-empting – such as coming into contact with the virus," says Quartey.

That being said, deciding that you actually don't want to leave the house is fine too. As every generic email greeting reminds us, we are living in ~unprecedented times. If you don’t feel ready to meet up with six different germ-carrying friends yet, you should tell them so.

"I would frame it as, 'Sounds really fun but I don't feel ready,' and make it about yourself," says Thompson. "You could make a joke and say, 'I think I've become a bit institutionalised and it’s going to take me some time to adapt, but keep in touch and can we FaceTime later.' Make it about yourself. Don't blame them and don't lecture other people. Each one of us has to make our own decisions."

There is no right or wrong way to feel about the lockdown easing; you should just prioritise your own mental and physical health, and ensure that you are not endangering others. Those of us who have a choice about leaving the house – unlike the countless key workers whose lives have been upended since the start of the pandemic – are the lucky ones. We should at least use this privilege in a way that serves our mental wellbeing.

"It is important to remember that you don’t have to convince anyone around to your way of thinking,” says Quartey. "You need not feel any obligation to be in total agreement with another person – however well-intentioned – when it comes to your own health."

@phoebejanehurst