As we embrace the date for more freedoms in NSW, you may be detecting levels of apprehension about moving back out into the world. A phenomenon known as re-entry anxiety, or reverse culture shock, it is the experience of re-engaging in a formerly known existence after having a different experience for a long time. It can happen to prisoners who re-enter society, people on expedition, and returning expatriates after living abroad for a while. Essentially, our brain helps us to survive and acclimatise in situations by focusing on the information we need to have at our disposal right now, and puts away the information we do not need. As we adapt, new scripts and pathways are written and brought to the front of our mind for ease of retrieval and execution. You may have automated click and collect groceries as the standard way to get your pantry filled. Having a night off from cooking would have been a click on an app experience. For the last few months, the main form of transportation we needed were walking, and perhaps cycling. These are fairly simplified processes. If you have been circulating around your LGA, the street sights, and the people you encounter have been somewhat uniform. You would not have needed to use navigational skills, a range of interpersonal skills or use complete sentences (in some situations). A grunt could suffice as you walked around in your PJs. Unless you have been having a private rock concert at home several nights a week, you have probably acclimatised to the localised sounds and noises around your home. These have likely been at a standard decibel level. Further, our brains have been under a constant state of stress dealing with changing rules, lockdown concerns and vaccination race rates. Chronic stress impacts our memory and puts our brain in a kind of fog. Social distancing also impacts our brains as we do not have the same relational and contextual cues to guide our interpretation of events and decision making.
Come October 11, as our bodies head out into the world, our brains will need doing a rapid reboot. Going out to meet some friends, could include, figuring out what to wear, who to invite (and not offend), where to go, what to eat, what time, which is the best route to take for that time of the day. The environment starts to be a sensory overload experience, lights, smells, sights and sounds. Instinctively, your brain, conditioned now to respond with extreme COVID-19 safety behaviours is requiring constant re-checking and reassurance that we are doing the right thing and are ok. This is tiring, and our brain is feeling the burden of making it all happen. Anxiety can set in as we lose confidence in our ability to manage.
So what to do about this? A graded experience approach, and taking small steps can help. Here are some top tips:
- Start talking about re-entry now with friends and family. Be aware that this will differ for everyone. That is ok. Pace it out. Talk about what you miss, what you are looking forward to doing again. Chunk this down into: people you want to see and places you would like to visit. Simply talking things out helps our minds to remember and re-experience information, and eases the shock.
- Plan to take small steps. Think about how many people and how familiar those people are to you. Perhaps start with a couple of close friends or family as the first step forward. Think about the place – perhaps closer to home, less busy roads, less noisy environments could be the first step. Think about how much time you might want to venture out for, starting with a solid hour perhaps.
- Try not to plan too much, too far in advance. Start with just the next week, and pop some things into your diary in small manageable steps. You may even decide to have time to yourself on the beach with nobody else!
- Be aware when you are getting tired and take note of this. Staying in the present, having a retreat back into COVID-normal is not a bad thing. You may find days where you prefer to stay in your PJs on the couch. You may want to spend time just focussing on your garden, or that favourite coffee mug of yours. That’s ok too. You have not regressed to your COVID self, your brain probably just needs those anchors to rest.
Valerie Ling, MClin Psych, BA(Hons), MAPS, Clinical Psychologist has a passion for helping people find their voice and continue to write their life’s story. Committed to prevent burnout and empowering individuals to life an effective life, she is the Director and Founder of The Centre For Effective Living.