It’s a bit like waking from a disturbing dream. As you open your eyes, the outlines of the room and the furniture are familiar, the world looks more or less unchanged, but everything feels unmistakably different.
nd so it is as we emerge after lockdown. A bit disorientated, a bit out of step. For months now, the scope of our daily lives has shrunk down to fit inside the four walls of our home.
But suddenly, the doors are to be flung open again. Life in parks and shops and cafes will resume. We can stop and chat on the street, catch the Dart into town, or spend an afternoon trying on jeans.
These old routines from our former lives, once second nature, seem exotic now, and more than a little threatening.
Lockdown was scary, sure. But after several weeks of growing alarm regarding an unquantifiable danger, it also felt like a shelter. For me, someone anxious by nature, there was something reassuring about burrowing away, scaling back into a daily routine where everything fell readily within my control.
So long as we washed our hands, wore our masks and mostly stayed at home, we felt protected. Now, its back out into the unknown.
I’m not alone, clearly, in having mixed feelings about all this. Irish people are apprehensive. In a poll carried out by Trinity College last month, three-quarters of Irish workers surveyed said they feared catching Covid-19 on public transport.
Galway photographer Andraya Tighe has a history of anxiety and as lockdown eases, remains stressed about the prospect of a second wave.
“I have that fear lingering in the back of my head. It’s a little bit daunting,” she says. She’s worried it’s too much too soon. “It’s nice to see that everyone is returning to normality, but are they doing it too fast?”
The transition back into normal life feels to her a little bit more abrupt than she would like, especially because after the initial discomfort of lockdown, she was starting to appreciate the opportunity it presented for reflection.
“I was looking at my life going, I have until August to restart, refresh,” she says. “It’s a bit daunting but I was in a place where I was like, I’m going to appreciate the little things even more after this. I was nearly starting to enjoy the lockdown and the calmness of it.”
She agrees that nervousness about a second wave means she won’t be fully embracing new freedoms for some time. “I feel like I won’t be going out to pubs or seeing friends in that kind of environment,” she says. “I feel like I’ll be so, so nervous doing that. I saw a few shops that I like are reopening this week but I’m not in a major hurry to rush to them. I feel like lockdown has taught me that those things don’t matter to me as much as I thought they did.”
Andraya feels an extra responsibility to stay safe, as she lives at home with her parents. “I just don’t want to even risk it. I’ll definitely be taking precautions for a while.”
But as restrictions are eased, she says there is an unspoken pressure building to get back to business as usual, keenly felt by those who remain cautious.
“I’d be in a shop wearing my gloves and my mask and everything, and you kind of nearly feel a judgement at this stage – you nearly feel them looking at you going, ah come on, it’s nearly over. I do feel there will be pressure from friends and external circles.”
Despite this, Andraya’s concerns are common. Drogheda GP and mental-health writer Dr Harry Barry is the author of a new book on surviving trauma called Emotional Healing. He is also a specialist in anxiety. Dr Barry believes we have a collective case of agoraphobia, or FOGO (fear of going out), which may be even more marked for people who have a history of anxiety.
“Some people with anxiety, believe it or not, actually felt a bit better during lockdown because, for the person with anxiety, it’s the things they can’t control that cause them anxiety,” he explains.
“If you confine everything to your own little area, shutting everything down, then the risk of the virus coming in was almost nil, therefore that ceases to be a risk. And because everything was within your control, you were able to cope. The problems really occur when you start to open and move out.”
He believes that it will take a year or more before we can take a reliable measure of the mental health cost of the pandemic.
But in the short term, a great many people will be heading back to work and to normal life in a state of dysfunctional hypervigilance. “There is still a very significant amount of anxiety out there about the virus itself,” he says. People may “be almost looking for danger all of the time” And of course if you live your life in state of high vigilance, it’s just exhausting.
This, of course is tempered by a widespread “huge sense of relief about being able to be able to come out of lockdown because a lot of people were terrified, not just of the virus but about losing their jobs.”
“Try to introduce a phase-by-phase approach where you keep pushing yourself to do a little bit more each time as you re-integrate back into your life.
But one thing that is for sure is that we will all emerge from this experience changed, perhaps even paradoxically, both more vulnerable and more resilient.
“A lot of people have spent more time alone or with reduced contact than they are used to so there has probably been a build-up of anxious thinking throughout the pandemic.
“And the constant news stories and daily death tolls, the grim news around the world hasn’t helped.
“So a lot of people are looking forward to getting back to normal, but a lot of have built up a lot of negativity,” says psychotherapist Michael Ledden of Anxiety Ireland (anxietyireland.ie). “We can get very comfortable in a comfort zone of not having to see people and I know many people have actually told me that the pandemic has had some good sides.
“For example, it has made them realise all thing things they were doing that they didn’t want to do…. there definitely will be a readjustment for people with anxiety to try to reintegrate a little bit slowly. Not to push themselves too fast,” he adds.
It’s good for morale, Ledden says, to try to look at the positive things that have come out of the experience.
“My advice would be really to look at the commitments you have and to not go back to trying to everything that you were doing before lockdown.
“Try to introduce a phase-by-phase approach where you keep pushing yourself to do a little bit more each time as you re-integrate back into your life. Maybe examine if there are parts of your life that you didn’t miss and you don’t want to go back to.”