Life & Culture

Coping with the ‘new normal’

Is coming out of lockdown making your anxiety levels soar? Psychologist Emma Citron has some advice


It began with my first espresso in a freshly re-opened Starbucks. Then came the joys of clothes shopping in what we now call “non- essential retail”. These days, I go swimming, enjoy coffees with friends, eat out to help our struggling economy. And sometimes my clenched jaw relaxes and I forget the virus that could be lurking on every surface and in the air I breathe.

I’ve taken advantage of all the easing of the rules, but I know others have found it more difficult. Take my friend Nicky. “I felt very safe in lockdown, and was surprised that I didn’t miss office life or socialising. Now I’m reluctant to take risks. I don’t need to go shopping or have meals out. I’m much safer at home. And I don’t trust the government to set sensible rules.”

Clinical psychologist Emma Citron believes lockdown has reinforced avoidance mechanisms for the socially anxious and venturing out into the wide world again presents a major challenge.

“I would suggest setting yourself a ‘graded hierarchy’ of steps that you add to every three to four days,” she says. “If you find that you are not going out at all, or only early in the morning or late at night, your first step would be to go out during the day, to a park that isn’t completely empty. Stop and watch the children in the playground. Then a few days later, organise a socially distanced walk with a friend, or go to a shop. Get used to pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.”

Health issues and constant checking of real, anticipated or imagined illnesses, can be used as a platform for people to go into total lockdown and not being able to get out of it, she says. “Ask yourself, ‘am I behaving like this as a real precaution because I am vulnerable, or is it because I am anxious and can’t come out of lockdown. Is it having a detrimental effect on my family and others? Maybe I should speak to my GP.’ Don’t feel guilty if you are anxious. Recognise it and try to do something positive about it.”

Lockdown and stress have played havoc with family dynamics, bringing into sharp relief differences in opinion and character. You may have a combination of chilled teens, with one highly anxious parent while the other parent is more willing to take calculated risks. The strength of feeling the virus evokes, the heated discussions and strong opinions can cause friction, alienation and potentially long-lasting damage, says Citron.

“Try to keep communication open, let the kids and teens know how you feel about things. Point out that it is against the rules to gather in large groups, and negotiate to keep the social distance for the sake of grandma. Get into a discussion before it deteriorates into family breakdown. Many families struggle with letting kids out and having their freedom, without cross examining them on their return. We have to respect their freedom and their right to privacy, build up trust. But when people’s anxiety is raised, there is more of a tendency to launch into an interrogation.”

For Sarah, a single mother with three teenage sons, it’s a constant struggle to get them to keep the rules, made harder by easing. “They think they are immune, and they can’t see why they shouldn’t get together with friends. It’s very difficult to persuade them.”

“Get together and have a non-shouty, constructive conversation,” says Citron. “Fears can be voiced, acknowledged and respected. Try to park judgment if others are not ‘squeaky clean’ with the rules. But don’t stop them from having a nice time within the boundaries of what is legally permitted. Everyone needs to compromise to some extent. ”

A diet of depressing news with your morning coffee can set you up for a day of spiralling catastrophising for those with a tendency to anxiety, she says. “Reading the papers later in the day, or following a softer, children’s version of the news can be helpful. Tell yourself, we have adapted before and we will adapt again. Think of the advice you’d give a friend and create a positive alternative narrative. Focus on the things you can control, like cooking a healthy meal or taking exercise.”

Beverley, a mum of three from north London, admits to sleepless nights over her son’s barmitzvah which is coming up soon. “If I knew what was definitely off or on, I’d find it easier. But the rules keep changing, and I am finding that incredibly difficult. We know it won’t be the day we dreamed of, but we still don’t know what it will be like.

“My husband tells me to chill out, but that just makes it worse. I feel I’m doing the worrying for all of us. All I want is a beautiful family day , but will that put my parents at risk? I really don’t know what to do and I feel angry that he can’t see that.”

Citron explains that having to adapt to rapidly changing situations can exacerbate existing mental health problems, or trigger new ones.

“Those who have mentally done better are those who have taken the foot off the pedal a bit,” says Citron. “Try to focus on the positives: lockdown has given parents a chance to spend more time with children.

“Any ‘crisis’ brings reflection and regrouping. It forces us to think about our needs and wishes — we have had to make compromises and choices, in ways we haven’t before. It has strongly encouraged communication.

“We have gone back to basics with simple activities like baking and gardening, family camping, local walks and meals together. This period has challenged us to go out of our comfort zones. And that’s a skill we will need to hold on to for the rest of our lives.”

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive