On October 22 – Melbourne’s 262nd day of lockdown – restrictions began to ease in Victoria.
For 21-year-old student Tom Dickinson, anxiety came soon after Daniel Andrews’ announcement.
“Initially, I was really excited when I heard the announcement,” he says. “Then, the thought of being in a big group actually sunk in a bit more … it’s a situation that I knew was going to make me a bit anxious, especially as I was used to only seeing one or two other people at a time.”
In the following weeks restrictions swiftly eased – and at midnight last night, most disappeared completely. Many will return to their offices for the first time next week.
Dickinson is not alone in his hesitation towards the resumption of normal life, with many people simultaneously celebrating and dreading going back to work, social events and day-to-day life.
As a result of one of the world longest cumulative periods in lockdown, many Victorians have struggled with their mental health.
The ABS found that nearly one-third of people in Victoria reported having psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety this year.
However, while the end of lockdown may be a relief for some, for others the reopening of society triggered further anxiety and stress.
Swinburne University Professor Glen Bates, who researches social anxiety and PTSD, says our response to Covid-19 has gone through phases.
“When we were first dealing with Covid last year, there was suddenly a big focus on health concerns like that you might get the disease … then, we eventually began to get used to the lockdowns,” he says.
“You’d get these horrible stories of people wandering out on the street one time and they saw someone, picked [Covid] up and died … then we then evolved to masks and distancing.”
“Other people changed from people who might kill you, to people you felt separated from.”
Dr Michael Keem, a trainee neuropsychiatrist at Epworth Hospital in Melbourne, says the relaxation of restrictions is helping people rekindle their sense of self, but can also be anxiety-inducing for that exact same reason.
”There’s a lot of things to do and reconnect with, and those underlying threats and the uncertainty that has been brought into the world as well,” he says.
“People have felt disconnected from things that have given them meaning and purpose, as a result of the existential threats of the pandemic.
Now that lockdowns are relaxing, people are still feeling all of the existential anxiety and disconnection from things that gave them meaning before.
There is a consensus that “we are not fully out of the woods”, he says.
A month after lockdown restrictions eased case numbers remain high, which is a root cause of anxiety for many Victorians. Numbers ticked up above 1000 cases again today.
Casey Medical GP Dr Tom Everitt says many people feel nervous about being out in public because of high case numbers and the associated risks.
“Coming out of lockdown, many will have increased anxiety if they have been anxious during their lockdown, or the ones that have been calm and enjoying lockdown will feel disappointed and threatened,” he says.
Dr Everitt says young people are some of the most vulnerable to feeling high levels of anxiety. The demographic most commonly seen with anxiety are typically high school students, or young adults in their 20s.
One factor contributing to this is the high risk associated with young people contracting Coronavirus.
Two days after lockdow neased, Covid commander Jeroen Weimar reported that in Metropolitan Melbourne 29 per cent of all covid cases were under the age of 19 and in Regional Victoria 38 per cent Covid-19 cases were under the age of 19.
Dr Keem said he had also observed increased anxiety levels in young Australians about re-entering society post-lockdown.
Children have been quite affected by post-lockdown anxiety and have had low motivation and energy.
“For a lot of children, the pandemic will be a quite defining moment in their lives,” he said.
He says that many of his patients have felt the “danger that the virus poses”, such as the risks it has on their health, wellbeing, friends and family.
The ‘new normal’
While Victoria, and the world, continues to work towards and adjust to the idea of living with covid, many are struggling to return to their pre-pandemic lifestyles and work.
Stephanie Pantou, owner of Stephanie Pantou Hair Artistry, says it’s been difficult running a business through continuous lockdowns, as well as the subsequent pressures of reopening.
“I cannot explain in words how much I love my job. I live and breathe hair,” she says.
Hair and beauty services have experienced some of the toughest restrictions over the past year and a half, as an industry that cannot work from home.
Until today, the prevailing restrictions meant they could only be open for five fully vaccinated people at a time. This in itself creates its own set of anxieties for those working in these industries, Pantou says.
“I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and that was to not open up my business with [those] restrictions in place,” she says.
“I felt like either way I wasn’t going to make anyone happy. There was going to be someone complaining whether I was open because I would be discriminating against them not being vaccinated, and if I didn’t open, people would say that it’s not fair.
“I’ve never felt so sick in my whole entire life.”
However, that isn’t the only thing that plagues Pantou’s mind about reopening.
Hairdressers are opening up during a time that is always busy – the lead up to Christmas.
“In normal times I’ll be booked out November to January … last Christmas, I was working 12-hour days on average,”
“There were two days where I worked 14 hours each day … I was so sick, mentally and physically I was so rundown. I swore to myself that I would never do that again,” she says.
“You know you want to go back, but you know you’re not going to go back at your normal pace.”
Getting back on track
Dr Keem says he has seen an increase in those struggling with their mental health both during and after the multiple Victorian lockdowns, with some common symptoms.
“There has been a loss of extrinsic resilience (a loss of hope, self, meaning and optimism), connections with the community, family and loved ones. There have been increased amounts of anxiety with the lockdown and easing of restrictions,” he says.
“There have been a lot of substance abuse disorders, as people are often self-medicating, to try and diminish the feelings of stress. More and more people who have had these difficulties during lockdown have been presented to hospitals.”
Dr Everitt says there are a number of ways for those feeling scared about the state reopening to manage their anxiety.
“Exercise will help release endorphins into the brain, which makes people more relaxed and happier,” he says.
The Victorian state mental health initiative BetterHealth notes that exercise can help release muscle tension, which can help relax the body.
Another strategy is to allow time to adjust to the changes of post-lockdown.
“It is important for those who have the symptoms of anxiety to take it very slowly and quietly. They should be cautious of booking too many events, and going to any that may be socially threatening,” says Dr Everitt.
Dr Everitt and Dr Keem stress the importance of reconnecting with loved ones and focusing on what is important to them in life, as well as seeking help if any initial fear and stress about returning to “normal” life doesn’t dissipate.
“Whether it is volunteering or the sense of drive they get with their work, I urge people who are suffering to connect with people and healthcare earlier, rather than later,” says Dr Keem.
For those who will struggle more than most with the sudden socialisation, Prof Bates recommends taking a constructive, yet self-compassionate approach during difficult times such as reopening.
“There are different ways of thinking about self-compassion, but it’s recognising something, being aware … that this is what I’m dealing with, and then recognising that this is a phase of re-adaptation and getting used to it,” he says.
“There’s [also] the notion of common humanity, touching on the idea that everyone is facing this, it’s not just me.”
Prof Bates proposes, however, that on an individual basis and collectively as a society, “we will go back to a more stable time quicker than what we think.”
“I think it could maybe be a few years of recovery, because of course it’s not going to just go away,” he says.
“We’ll have this vulnerability for a period of time, however most people will just feel a bit out of whack for a few weeks.”
“We are more flexible than we sometimes give ourselves credit for, and these lockdowns have shown that.”