Vaccination numbers are up, the rate of infection is coming down. Shops, restaurants, gyms are re-opening – after over a year of working from home, we may soon be able to go back to the office.
While the extraverts among us might relish this thought, many of us have listened carefully to the media telling us that the outside world is unsafe, that contact with others is dangerous, that we may die, or, even worse, that we may inadvertently cause harm to someone else.
In order to manage the transition, we need to first understand why we are so anxious and then use this knowledge to prepare ourselves for a safe and enjoyable way back into society.
The Fight or Flight Response
It takes a species a very long time to evolve and change their bodies. In terms of evolution, humans have not had much time since we lived in caves, and we are still designed to survive in cave time conditions. The main threat in those days was animal attack, which is why our nerves still only understand this one interpretation of danger. If you worry about a deadline at work, your body interprets this as a threat by a wild animal – and it sets everything in motion to prepare you to either run away as fast as you can or fight back with all your might (hence the term ‘fight or flight response’).
For both of these options, you need additional blood supply to your muscles, which is why your heart rate goes up and your blood is redirected away from non-priority areas, such as the digestive system, causing nausea or fluttering in your stomach, change in appetite, even constipation or diarrhoea.
In order to save valuable seconds, you are not supposed to think, but act purely on instinct, which means your cognitive functions, such as memory, decision making, logic and focus, are impaired. On the other hand, in order to get you angry as fast as possible, all your emotions are heightened and you might find yourself irritable, impatient, anxious and tearful.
Sleep tends to be a bad idea when there’s a tiger out to get you, so insomnia is common. Our assessment of risk is exaggerated, and we tend to expect the absolute worst – we catastrophise. This makes us more open to believing possible predictors of danger, such as pseudoscience and conspiracy theorists. At the same time, we are more suspicious of anyone telling us that something is safe.
We avoid anything that might be a threat, but because this does not alleviate anxiety, we restrict our safety zone further and further. In extreme cases, this can lead to agoraphobia – a type of anxiety disorder that causes intense fear of certain places and situations. Some of us have sheltered for over a year and are now told we can get back out there after we had our second jab.
How can we prepare for this?
1. Learn to control your fight or flight response:
- Breathe in on the count of four, hold your breath for two seconds, then breathe out on the count of five, fully emptying your lungs. Hold your breath for two seconds, then repeat until you feel calmer.
- Find a YouTube video on vagus nerve stretches and learn to relax your body
- Choose a place from your memory in which you felt completely calm and safe. Pick an object that has a strong connection to it and keep it in your pocket. Touch it when you get anxious and remember the safe place with as much sensory details as possible. What did it smell like there? What did the sand/bed covers etc. feel like?
2. Make a plan. Break down all the different tasks you need to re-learn before you would be able to return to the office. This might include things such as being able to get up at 7am, having office clothes to wear, being able to travel on public transport, planning what and where you will eat when you are back in the office etc.
3. Rank these tasks in order of how difficult/scary they feel to you – from easiest to hardest.
4. Try the easiest task (such as going outside into the garden) and repeat it, using the relaxation methods in step 1, until it feels easy. Only then move on to the next one. Your final task might be a trial journey to the office building when you are still off, or, if allowed, a visit inside.
Most importantly – be kind to yourself. You are not choosing to be anxious, you are programmed to be, by evolution. But with practice and a gentle step by step approach, we can all learn to look forward to that blether with colleagues in the office, or that little treat from a café on the way back home.
Diana Armstrong, Psychologist at Roodlane Medical, HCA Primary Care