Let’s discuss post pandemic people anxiety

So it turns out that living in and out of lockdown for over a year can have a pretty dramatic effect on a person, and when faced with “life as normal” in a different country it manifests in a not so delightful way. I can tell you that now, for certain.

Let me just refresh the situation for those of you that aren’t familiar. In March 2020, I was living in London. The week before the UK officially went into it’s first lockdown, due to Covid, I moved out to the countryside with my boyfriend, where we then went through three (I think that’s the official count) lockdowns over the course of 15 months. “Lockdown” in the UK means not leaving your house apart from essential exercise and essential shopping (food and pharmacy basically). All non-essential shops are closed and you aren’t allowed to congregate with friends or family outside, or in, while in full lockdown. Groups of people are absolutely prohibited and over the course of the year I was seldom in a space where more than fifteen to twenty people were together, while lockdowns were lifted.

I say all of this as coming into America, earlier this month, I had a substantial panic attack in the airport because of the quick change of pace from what I was used to. Pre-pandemic, I was constantly out and about, travelling the world, dining in restaurants, shopping til I would drop and more. I never had a hard time in big groups of people and I was one of the weirdos that loved the tube. I can feel Londoners’ eyes popping out of their head regarding that statement. Who loves the tube?! Yup, even after two decades I was that person.

However, It seems in just one year I have reconditioned myself to a new world, where people don’t stand close to one another, where someone not wearing a mask is a potentially a scary thing and where big groups are, well, apparently completely terrifying.

Arriving in the USA, I was exhausted. I think more emotionally than anything else. I wasn’t sure that day would ever come and it all seemed pretty surreal that I was once again standing on American soil. I thought for sure something would happen that would once again delay my flight or send my plans into chaos. Even the morning of, I had five alarms set and bags packed days in advance. I was a nervous wreck!

So here I am, finally in the USA and I’m standing at baggage claim and watching as people start to gather. Around the carousel, there are roughly 100 people as I wait. My hands start to sweat and I don’t think too much of it. Then a man comes up next to me and brushes my shoulder with his arm as he gestures to his wife, across the carousel, to fetch his bag. His mask was around his chin and I could feel the warmth of his breath on my neck.

I have never, before this past year, cared at all about personal space. I’ve been to festivals, stood in crowded market spaces, spent endless hours in transit on public transport in London and never felt uncomfortable about the people around me or close to me. It’s just never been a problem. Sure it’s not always the best, but you get used to it and over it.

On this day, my arrival day, it was not ok. As his arm made contact with my shoulder, I immediately turned to him and said, rather sternly “excuse me, sir, you need to please maintain social distancing.” I swear I was like a UK government poster talking. But I could feel my own fear and anxiety in my voice. I backed away from the carousel, as this man seemed very annoyed by my paranoid presence, and decided I would simply wait a bit further away for my bags. I wanted to sit down and cry. I honestly didn’t know what was happening. Why was I freaking out?! How had it come to this? Everyone else was so normal and easy going and I was a walking talking anxiety attack.

Finally my bags arrived and I let them go once more around the carousel until there was a wide open space to grab them. I just wanted out of there. Out into the open warm and sticky air of Charleston, South Carolina, my mom pulled up to retrieve me up from the airport. I threw my luggage into the trunk and reached out to hug my mom. The tears came fast and heavy. Cars drove by, windows down, and people shouted “aww” from their front seats as I stood in the middle of the pavement balling my eyes out, hugging my mother for the first time in as long as I can remember. Half of me was glad to see her and the other half felt like she had become my touch piece, in that moment, for getting out of this anxious situation.

We drove through Charleston on the way home, as we were picking up my little brother before heading to the island. It was a Saturday night and Charleston was alive. People were spilling out onto the streets from busy bars and restaurants. Live music played as people swayed, arm in arm with beers in hand. Like scenes from my college days, such scenarios would usually fill my heart with joy and warm flashbacks. Instead, my heart felt like it was beating out of my chest and I felt sick to my stomach. I so badly wanted to be back in the cottage in Hampshire, sitting on the sofa with Bonjour and looking at the rain pelt the window beside us. That felt safe. This felt entirely the opposite and it terrified me. I had done everything I could to get home to this place and this place was giving me the worst panic attack on record.

So, why even mention this?

Well, first of all, I want to remind everyone that I left the UK before things had “opened up” again. I left the week before and I have a feeling things would have been very different if I had had a chance to acclimate to the new normal in the UK before facing this “completely back to normal life” in the USA.

But, I wanted to write this for anyone, globally, that is about to come out of lockdown, about to face “normal” after a year of anything but normal and say… “things might be right as rain or they might look like THIS.” I wasn’t expecting THIS. I was expecting that I’d be fine, overjoyed and oh so ready to have my life look exactly as it was before. It seems my brain had other ideas.

I’m sure there will be plenty of studies to come on the effects of lockdown on a whole generation of people. I’m sure the statistics will be scary and staggering. But for right now, in this moment, let me tell you that the experience of not being allowed to hug, handshake, stand next to or in big groups with people you love, like or even just remotely tolerate, has changed so much for so many.

My own new found anxiety has truly made me realise that this is not easy for anyone and every person we encounter, as we come back to “normal,” is going to have a different level of comfort we need to try and accommodate. Please try and be as understanding as possible with this, and kind. Every country has had a different reaction to this pandemic and as the world opens up and we all start to travel again, using that knowledge to understand people’s reactions will go a long way!

While I hope that my own anxieties have diminished with these past few weeks in the USA, I do a apologise if my weirdness sticks around a little longer and I see any familiar faces and don’t immediately go in for a hug as usual (oh man I do miss being a hugging person)… I think it’s just going to take a little time and space before I’m back to my own state of “normal.”

And again… for those who didn’t hear it in the back… it’s ok if you too are feeling a bit out of sorts with all of this. What has happened in this past year has been a trauma for all, whether you were sick or not, whether you lost loved ones or not. This is a year in which no human being has gone untouched by the events that unfolded. Go easy on yourself as we move forward and try to find our feet in a worldwide recovery.

Now, I’m off to watch the sunset with the dogs. I will gladly report there wasn’t an ounce of anxiety hugging those two the moment I walked into the door!

Hope everyone has a great day and, as usual, feel free to carry on the conversation below! This is a safe space for discussing any and all experiences. I’m here reading and learning as always.

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15 Comments

  1. Sharon
    27th May / 7:27 am

    Oh sweetie I completely understand. I too am struggling with the feeling of unease now things are opening up in the UK. My skin crawls at seeing crowds on the TV and I haven’t been brave enough to go out for a meal yet. It’s just going to take time. Sending you love and hugs x

  2. Dianne Thomas
    27th May / 8:16 am

    I was/am In clinically extremely vulnerable group of people due to underlying illness and medication- I haven’t been able to go to work ( in hospital) for 15 months- although I have been working from home – and feel so grateful for this, but feel so very guilty about not being able to do my health care professional job in person
    I’ve rarely been out of house since then and despite being fully vaccinated I’m not sure if I’ve produced sufficient antibodies to Covid due to my illness- I’m very concerned about how I’m going to integrate myself into society again

  3. 27th May / 11:42 am

    It’s hard. Especially because SC is wide open. I have a hard time when people don’t keep their distance now. I feel unsafe.
    It will get easier with time.
    But I do think this pandemic has change everyone, in some way.

  4. Nicole
    27th May / 11:52 am

    Emily I feel all of this deeply! Thank you for sharing your perspective and being open and vulnerable as we all are experiencing the side effects of this trauma.
    I went to a small party (15 people) with several of my fully vaccinated friends and when I walked in I didn’t know what to do. I stood off to the side and would only talk with the hostess. I realized I needed to let her get back but I was struggling with her wanting to hand me off to someone else. I warmed up, but have to say I pretty much stayed in the same space throughout. This is so unlike me. A mixer, a mingler and definitely also a hugger.
    We will get through this but I sense an awkward road ahead where we just need to give each other some grace.

  5. Sarah
    27th May / 1:35 pm

    I totally understand this. My husband and I left the UK (Canterbury) in February and it really REALLY freaked me out. We flew into Chicago and standing in line for customs was horrifying for us as there were people everywhere and they were so close. We’ve been in America for a few months now and I am happy to report that it does get easier but it still always takes me by surprise. We always seem ‘extra cautious’ or ‘paranoid’ to our friends and family but even though we are vaccinated, we’d rather keep wearing masks and social distancing to stay safe.

  6. Ines
    27th May / 1:59 pm

    I totally understand! I think that’s going to be me exactly when I do travel. I have decided that I probably won’t travel by plane this year so maybe by the time I do I will have gotten used to the “new normal”. In Portugal we have opened up quite a bit but I still don’t feel comfortable in a closed restaurant. It will take time but we’ll get there!

  7. Rosemary
    27th May / 3:57 pm

    My 32 year old daughter lives in Toronto Canada, just 2 hours drive away from me. But except for two ‘mom’s homemade food’ deliveries to her deck on Christmas Eve and her birthday in January I’ve barely seen her as she is so protective of her older parents. She did come for a 3 hour lunch on Mother’s Day as we had our first vaccine shot. But she wore a mask even inside and rearranged the table seating to position herself further away while we ate. After she returned home I messaged her she seemed a bit tired. She replied that it was more that she felt ‘overwhelmed’ by visiting as she hadn’t done such in 14 months. She has worked remotely and lived in a small apartment since Covid began and only has had close contact with one friend a few times a week. We talked after her visit how we all had to take it slow as we had all changed our behaviours to adapt to our forced isolation, and even close family would need gentle pacing to adapt back to whatever ‘normal’ will be for us now. Thanks for sharing your experience. I love the London Tube too (except in sweltering heat & I’m in a pullover cashmere sweater) but I can’t fathom squeezing myself into the packed subway standing cheek to jowl with others ever again…though I do hope that day will come.

  8. Lori
    27th May / 6:23 pm

    Goodness me…I had a hard time going from Denver, CO to Clemson, SC for our daughter’s graduation 3 weeks ago. Felt like I was coming from another planet vs my own country. SC never really closed and CO closed and slowly reopened.
    Fully vaccinated and not comfortable with the honor system.
    xx

  9. 27th May / 6:33 pm

    Unfortunately, there are many in the US who don’t feel it necessary to wear a mask or socially distance, as if their rights trump another’s. I wish that I could keep them away from you, but alas, there seems to be nothing we’ve been able to do or say to change these people’s minds. Dock and dog time will heal!!

  10. Beth
    27th May / 10:45 pm

    I love this! We are all going at our own pace back into “normal”. That process will not look the same for all of us and we need to give people the time to get reacclimated. I’m also a hugging person and I so much miss giving hugs to family and friends.

  11. Janet
    28th May / 12:20 am

    I live in Ontario Canada and we too have been in and out of lockdown. I have also had some panic attacks while out for necessary groceries, thank goodness for my husband! He is doing all the groceries now! We are starting to very slowly leave lockdown here as the vaccinations are happening here ( I’ve had mine). I have ventured out and a man in line at the grocer was in my personal space… I wish I had your voice, instead I gave him my best masked stink eye but to no avail. Lol. This whole new way of life will take a while to get used to, we all need to remember grace and kindness. Love to you and give your pups an extra hug.

  12. 28th May / 1:29 am

    I get it. I had an anxiety attack on Sunday during my first post-pandemic trip to an outdoor mall here in Los Angeles. People were mostly masked but there were SO MANY of them. It was just like the before times, but I wasn’t used to it anymore and it really freaked me out. It’s not even that I felt unsafe; I just felt anxious being around so many people. It’ll take awhile to readjust.

  13. Jen C
    28th May / 1:33 am

    OMG THANK YOU FOR THIS. I never type in all caps but this is exactly what I needed to read today. It’s been a bit disconcerting to see so much on social media about life getting back to “normal” – people socializing without masks, dining inside and going to sporting events like it’s no big deal. We’ve all spent 15 months wary that strangers might be carrying the literal viral plague and all of a sudden, we’re supposed to be comfortable in crowds? I had a panic attack in a not at all crowded grocery store on the weekend. I wish the “back to normal” crowd had a bit more empathy for those of who will need a long time before feel normal again
    Xo

  14. Nicole Kowalski
    28th May / 7:40 am

    I’m in CA and we don’t fully open until June 15. And it’s an area that has generally been fairly “safe” in terms of social distancing and masking. And our transmission rate is now rated “low” by the CDC (the only state to reach this status). I would find it hard to travel having to rely on other people’s beliefs around COVID in the US. In NC, the CDC ranks the COVID transmission as still “substantial.” But, you are fully vaxxed, so take some comfort in that.

    I hope you and your family stay well and enjoy being together!

  15. Emily Mundwiller
    6th June / 8:33 pm

    Thank you for this post! I just traveled for the first time in almost 2 years and it was crazy how people are not taking this seriously…
    Quick question, can you tell me more about the Polo button down top you are wearing in this photo ?

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