Like returning from a long overseas trip, re-emerging from isolation can be a little jarring. Psychologist Belinda Williams puts a name to the strange sense of unease you may be feeling in post-COVID life, and explains how to cope with it.
With coronavirus restrictions gradually lifting in most states, and an increasing sense of things going back to ‘normal’, you’d think that we’d all be jumping at the chance to fall right back into our old lives.
But for a lot of us, the transition out of a life in lockdown hasn’t been as simple as we might have hoped. In fact, the renewed sense of freedom may feel just as anxiety-inducing as going into isolation was.
And if you’re one of those people who is stressed at the thought of getting back into the swing of things, you’re not alone. As psychologist Belinda Williams of The Bumpy Road explains, there’s actually a name for that specific sense of unease: re-entry syndrome, or reverse culture shock.
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What is it?
As Williams explained to host Melissa Wilson on The Juggling Act podcast, re-entry syndrome can be best explained with the comparison of coming home from an overseas trip.
“There’s a sense of feeling misaligned with what’s going on around you, a sense of unease and anxiety in relation to the adjustment that is happening as we shift in the dynamics of our day-to-day,” she says.
“In the COVID world, things were anxiety-inducing, but our responsibilities were simplified in that we were constrained to our homes… our world actually got quite small, and now as we re-emerge, we actually have to re-form new patterns and behaviours and interactions.”
How does it affect our mental health?
Naturally, the jarring change between pre and post-COVID life can lead to a sense of unease and anxiety in the most mundane scenarios.
“Not only are we re-emerging into the world outside and the world beyond, we actually have the expectation that it should be the same… And in many cases, it’s not,” explains Williams.
“When you go to the shop, things look different. There are X’s on the ground, you can only go in one way and not the other, there’s plastic screens between the cashiers and ourselves, you may get moved along if you stop and have a conversation with someone you know. So where we have this expectation that life is what it was, it actually isn’t. And that can lead to feelings of awkwardness, unease, something that’s simmering below the surface. And this is what we call reverse culture shock anxiety.”
How should we cope with it?
Like getting over jetlag, coming out of lockdown will take time.
“When we come back from overseas, we’re encouraged to return to our old routines in a slow way, to really rebuild our confidence and sense of normality as we re-establish ourselves in the day-to-day routine,” says Williams.
Rather than “diving headfirst back into things, trying to make up for lost time”, Williams recommends that you ease yourself back into your “normal” life.
“We need to slowly re-adjust to the day-by-day, and be gentle with ourselves, and the feelings that are coming up for us; knowing that no, we aren’t going back to the same. And even if we were, it’s ok to have a different perspective or mixed feelings about that,” she says.
“Take this opportunity to re-engage with conscious choice about how you want to be doing things, and make decisions based on a new and clean slate. Take your time in deciding who you want to catch up with, how you want to catch up with them, what you want to be doing … This is a really unique time whereby we do have that choice to do things a little bit differently and subtly get to reshape our routine.”
Above all, Williams recommends that people are gentle with themselves and each other during this period of transition.
“Be kind to yourself and everyone around you, because to everyone, it’s a little bit different.”
More essential coronavirus reading:
Read up on why 239 scientists wrote a letter to WHO arguing coronavirus is airborne, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.