Hooray! I hear you cry as we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel which might not, this time, turn out to be a train.
So why are so many of us (me included) feeling so anxious?
Well, here’s Reason number one: the false starts. We’ve had so many stop/starts over the past year that we don’t know how much trust to put in each newly-announced situation.
We continually hear about and read that we are returning to “a new normal”. But what on earth is normal about this? The pandemic hasn’t ended, has it? No vaccination is 100% effective, is it? And it seems there are new variants sneaking up on us almost weekly, doesn’t it?
On top of all that, the French Government is warning us that things may not go to plan so they’re – quite rightly of course – reserving the right to change things back at the drop of a hat.
Reason number two: it really doesn’t feel particularly safe out there, does it?
Reason number three: For many of us the most socially-challenged situation we have experienced over the past year has been dinner with the cat in attendance. And the cat’s table manners were appalling. So we too ended up eating packet macaroni cheese. Direct from the pan. With a spoon.
Or maybe that was just me.
So, what do we do?
One of the challenges that we face in rebuilding a fuller life is how to cope with all these uncertainties; how to decide what we feel is a reasonable risk, and how we build our confidence to go out into the world again. In some ways, it’s as if we have become institutionalised, living a safe but restricted life.
So, some of the guidance for people taking their first steps back into normal life after being in an institution might be worth considering. Seriously? Yes, seriously.
In a review of the effects of prison sentences on people’s personalities, Christian Jarrett of the BBC (ref: Christian Jarrett) found that: “The personality change that most dominated their accounts was an inability to trust others – a kind of perpetual paranoia.” The study found prisoners talking about feeling distanced from people, and finding it hard to trust other people.
If none of this strikes a chord with you, that’s terrific but I do know that a lot of us are feeling that perhaps we have lost at least some of our social skills and the thought of suddenly having to be on point in a social gathering (I can hear the extroverts tsking with disbelief at this) is proving daunting. If, added to this, you were less than comfortable in some social situations in the first place, the whole thing is just going to bring you out in a cold sweat.
For a ‘new normal’, rebuilding trust so that we can reconnect with each other in the many different ways that we need to, is essential, but it will take time.
So, here are a few tips to get you acclimatised:
Easy does it
Start by small things, like a coffee with a close friend, work up to an apéro with a small group of your nearest and dearest.
What *not* to do is to is suddenly fill your diary with all sorts of social events. I know it might be tempting to just say ‘yes’ to every invitation proffered but even for the extroverts among us, this is likely to be overwhelming.
And what does the feeling of being overwhelmed create? Yep, anxiety.
Work out what you’re going to say beforehand if you feel your diary is just getting a bit chokka. “Actually I’m a bit overwhelmed this week but how about next Monday?” is a better way than just agreeing to something then regretting nearer the time and having to phone to postpone or cancel. Or, worse, go along anyway thereby increasing your anxiety.
Give yourself space
You have had a lot of personal space over the past year and you’ve no doubt got used to it to some degree. Decide, gradually, how much of that personal space is now a necessity for your mental and emotional health. Give yourself time to adjust whilst consciously considering each day: have you had enough ‘me’ time?
Many of us feel anxious over this re-emergence. If you find yourself in a group of people and you’re feeling uncomfortable, say so. Note: I’m not suggesting you should fling your arms around the cashier in Intermarché and sharing that you’re having a major case of the wobblies but generally, in a social situation, a conversation can be steered into something along the lines of: I’m finding this quite difficult, anyone else?
If, however, sharing isn’t your thing, at least tell one other person. If you can’t bring yourself to do even that, write your feelings down in the form of a stream of consciousness before you go out. This helps identify exactly what it is that you’re feeling so it is easier to address it.
Keep doing the good things
If you have found over the past months that you were a previously undiscovered maestro flautist, or that you have developed a knack for creating macramé tea cosies that have been selling like hotcakes and these things (or their equivalent – even if it’s only be able to sit down and read a book) give you pleasure, do not now suddenly stop doing these things!
Actively consider which bits you have been getting pleasure from that perhaps you didn’t have time for previously and make sure you build those things into your new life.
Be curious, be kind
Do not expect everything to be like it was before. Our very way of life has changed, the way we communicate with others has changed. Our perception of things globally has no doubt changed.
Be curious as to what new opportunities and ways of doing things there may be.
And, remember to be kind to yourself, don’t push yourself too fast, too soon.
Katie Gardner is a fully-qualified CBT Counsellor and 11-year expat based on the border of 47/24. She has a regular advice column in The Local Buzz magazine which can also be read online.