What to do if you're feeling anxious about Australia opening up again

While the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the coming weeks is being welcomed by many in Australia, some are also experiencing levels of 'reopening anxiety'. Here's how you can manage it.

Ally Honan in her home office.

Ally Honan in her home office. Source: Supplied

We've now spent more than 18 months in a state of heightened awareness about our environment and social interactions, and we've had to follow one health guideline after the other.

But very soon, those guidelines will start easing.

New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT are set to exit extended periods in lockdown over the next few weeks as COVID-19 vaccination levels rise, and across the country, reopening plans over the next few months will allow beach days, road trips, pub feeds, and reuniting with friends and family.

But while the looming easing of restrictions is exciting for many, others are feeling nervous. 

What is 'reopening anxiety'? 

Miranda Cashin, a psychologist at non-profit youth mental health foundation Headspace, said it's normal to be experiencing so-called 'reopening anxiety'.

"We've been in such a strange reality for such a long time, so it's going to take time to build that relational muscle up again, in a sense, because we haven't been using it."

Crowds of people at Bronte Beach in Sydney.
Source: AAP

"Anxiety manifests in situations that are uncertain, and at the moment our world is very uncertain. It's that general sense of worry around 'what might happen? How will I cope? What will that look like?'

"And that can manifest in that physical sense of symptoms of butterflies in the stomach and physical tension."

As the country opens up, we'll need to constantly adapt to new public health orders and amendments to reopening roadmaps, as case numbers and evidence updates.

While reopening at 70 or 80 per cent double-dose vaccination coverage offers substantial protection against COVID-19, fears remain around passing on the virus to those who are unvaccinated such as children or those who cannot be vaccinated for health reasons.

And it's not yet clear how vaccination levels will impact case numbers going forward, how well vaccines reduce transmission of the Delta variant, or immunity will change over time.

How to manage your feelings

Ms Cashin said people feeling anxious should look to establish personal boundaries and communicate them to others.

"Be really clear yourself about what you're comfortable doing health-wise or restrictions-wise because that's going to help you navigate what social invitations you say yes to or how you might have conversations with people in your life." 

Psychologist Miranda Cashin at Headspace in Camperdown, Sydney.
Source: Supplied/Headspace

"So for example, if you're only comfortable having picnics, be clear and say 'okay that's my limit, that's my boundary'. 

"Whatever that looks like is perfectly fine for everyone because we're all going to have different boundaries."

Ms Cashin said living by a certain routine or degree of comfort for so many months could make journeying out into the world again difficult.

She said many people will experience reopening anxiety differently.

"For those who do have social anxiety or are more on that social anxiety spectrum, it's probably been that [lockdown] is slightly comfortable at the moment - no one is socialising, there's no sense of missing out because we all are."

Some people might be thinking "'okay, now I have to go out and be in the world, are my friendships going to be the same?'" she said. 

"'What's changed? What if I don't want to hang out? But then I'll be the one who's not going out when everyone else is?', so there will be a lot of complex problems coming up for people over the next couple of weeks."

'Be kind to yourself'

Ally Honan is a 25-year-old interior architect living in Ashfield, in Sydney’s inner-west, whose calendar for the coming weeks is already filling up. 

She started a new job just before the city's lockdown began in June and has been working with colleagues over conferencing apps ever since. She’ll essentially be meeting them for the first time once the office opens up again, she said. 

“I basically got their first names and work was quite busy at the time. There were no social outings or get-to-know-you time. I haven't been able to establish that rapport or comradery with colleagues."

Ally Honan in her home office.
Source: Supplied

She said she plans to take it slow while making commitments in the coming weeks.

"Some friends have already booked out pubs and there are birthday parties coming up and all these events."

"I'm trying to really manage how much I commit to from the get-go."

Ms Cashin said if you're nervous about the upcoming changes, pacing yourself can be very beneficial.

“Recognise this feeling is normal, we're all going to be feeling some level of this at some point," she said.

"Be kind to yourself, because adding those extra thoughts like, 'this is silly to be thinking like this,' or, 'others aren't thinking this,' is only going to make you feel worse. 

"We don't have to suddenly be going out every night and every day as if we've been in a drought. We can actually go slow."

Advice for business owners

Richard Daniel is the manager of a small café in St Leonards, in Sydney's north. He's feeling anxious about 11 October, when the city is set to take its first steps out of lockdown.

As a business owner, it'll be up to him and his staff to turn away unvaccinated customers under new public health orders. Some of them, he says, will be his regulars.

Richard Daniel's St Leonards cafe, JM Formula.
Source: Julia Carr-Catzel

"Some of the customers, we know they don't want to get vaccinated. But since they are regular customers, it makes it harder to explain."

"We try to explain, but they keep shouting at us, saying 'it's my choice to get vaccinated or not.' It's really hard. It really concerns us. That's what we're trying to work out, right now."

Businesses that fail to comply with public health orders will face fines of $5,000 or more. 

Ms Cashin said business owners can ease such anxiety by talking with colleagues about how to manage things.

“Coming up together with what your lines are going to be, what you're going to tell people if there is confrontation [could help] because that preparation will help you with that anticipatory anxiety in the moment." 

People crossing Collins Street in Melbourne.
Source: AAP

"And while they're going to be very unpleasant in the moment, [know] that moment is not about you - it's the other person.

"They're most likely experiencing some level of anxiety that is coming out as aggression and recognising it's not about you, even though it feels super uncomfortable."

Despite his concerns about reopening the café, Mr Daniels said he's also excited to have customers again.

"I missed the moment when people enjoy their coffee, enjoy their food and have a chit-chat. It's a good feeling."

Readers seeking support with mental health can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. More information is available at Beyondblue.org.au. Embrace Multicultural Mental Health supports people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Published 7 October 2021 at 11:04am, updated 7 October 2021 at 11:22am
By Julia Carr-Catzel
Source: SBS News