14 May 2020

Alert levels down but anxiety persists

From Nine To Noon, 11:23 am on 14 May 2020

A psychologist says as we emerge out of lockdown a higher proportion of people may experience anxiety – but that we can learn to live with life’s new uncertainties.

At the core of returning to a more social life, there may linger a sense of persistent anxiety for some, Sarb Johal told Nine to Noon.

sad son hugging his mother

Photo: 123RF

This may take the form of not wanting to get too close to other people, a lingering sense of dread, being easily distracted, poor sleep, or other physiological signs, as an over-activated parasympathetic nervous system compels us into fight-flight response to the unknown.

“Don’t forget, we are being asked to pivot from a mindset of acting like we have the coronavirus and avoiding all unnecessary contact to being able to be near people again, albeit with physical distancing measures still in place,” he says.

But, he said, anxiety is a normal human emotion when a new, unknown situation, a stressful event occurs, especially if it involves danger.

At any one time, 15 percent of the population will be affected by anxiety, which is different from a life-restricting anxiety disorder. The key to overcome post-lockdown anxiety is to build psychological safe spaces.

“Anxiety is different from having an anxiety disorder. It’s very realistic and it’s only going to go away once we start thinking about what do we need to do to create psychological safety, so that we’re not paralysed by worry.

“Children and younger adults may need to guidance as to how to behave, but also dealing with the emotions it may raise for them; feeling a sense of psychological danger. And we know that for the best learning to take place, yes; we need structure and predictability, but we also need to feel psychologically safe, so that our cognitive space isn’t taken up with thoughts of worry, and that we aren’t too caught up in the emotional labour and hard work of managing these silent emotions ourselves.

“Amongst other factors, underlying all this is a need for certainty that isn’t being met, and is unlikely to be met for some time.”

He says moving from Levels 3 and 4, which did bring a sense of protection and security for some who suffer from anxiety, as well as many in the wider population. Now entering back into society in Level 2 may also bring us face to face with the social and economic consequences in ways that we may not have been in touch with in real ways thus far: job losses, business closures and this may bring up feelings of shame, loss and guilt.

“It’s important to remember that we have a lot to process right now. Communications are also in the process of being decentralised. Instead of watching the latest at the 1pm press conference, directly from Dr Bloomfield, or one of the other public servants, and from the Prime Minister, we are now in a phase where we are receiving messages about what people are doing and how you need to behave from schools, work, councils, or commercial organisations we may have given our emails to, like cafes, supermarkets, museums.

“Everyone right now is receiving an information deluge.

“We are moving from a situation where we perhaps had a widely shared and convergent mental model of what was happening and how we should respond, as this information was mainly delivered through one channel, and was consistent and largely coherent.”

He says children going back to school on Monday was a positive development, but not without its own challenges. Structured learning was important, but so too was getting to grips with new health and safety rules in this period - like physical distancing and washing hands - making these a worry-free routine.

“In terms of schools, I have some sympathy for the view that children need the structure of getting on at school. But I also think that creating a sense of psychological safety is also going to be paramount if the learning opportunities that the schooling system is going to try to create are going to be effectively taken up.

“And that really is the key, for children going back to school and preschool, but also parents as well. Rebuilding that sense of psychological safety as we emerge back into a social world.”

“This is a relatively short interruption and I think it is really important to pay attention to how we create that sense of psychological safety so that kids aren’t worried and don’t have all their cognitive space taken up so that they can’t pay attention to the information of the curriculum that’s being presented to them.”

Fundamentally, accepting that a degree of uncertainty is inevitable and learning to live with it, not overestimating your ability to cope and not exaggerating the threat, are key to overcoming anxiety, he says.

 “I think part of it is about being tolerant around that and understanding that this could be around for a wee while and it’s going to take us a while to be normalised.”

Sarb Johal has tips for how to transition.