Mind Matters with Kyle MacDonald: Covid is in the community; it’s okay to be anxious about returning to work


Q: I’m struggling with the idea of being able to be in shops, restaurants and bars again. I’ve also been told that I need to go back to the office once we move to the “traffic light” system, but I’m not sure I can. What can I do about this anxiety?

A: It’s worth casting our minds back to a million years ago when no one had ever heard of Covid. Back to when our daily routine was largely set, and predictable. Most of us knew what the next day, the next week, even the rest of the year would bring. We had our routines and, mostly, they remained the same.

Predictable. Stable. Safe.

The idea that we would’ve been asked to change those routines not once but multiple times – to work from home, to lockdown, to home-school then back out into the world for a while, then back into lockdown – would’ve seemed unbelievable.

Yet here we are.

In Auckland, it’s now more than 100 days since we went into lockdown, and while the cliched ideas about how long it takes to form a habit are unhelpfully oversimplified, there’s little doubt that 100 days is enough to cement new habits – even ones we don’t want.

How individuals react to the lifting of this latest round of restrictions will vary, but it’s worth acknowledging that when we step back and look at the last two years they have been extraordinary, and asked a lot of us – even though as we trudge through the day-to-day it can come to feel vaguely normal.

In fact, what is normal is to feel some degree of anxiety and uncertainty as we make these changes. Overseas experience – with even longer periods of restrictions than Auckland has endured – is that anxiety is to be expected. Furthermore, the times when big changes happen – going into or out of lockdowns – present the biggest challenge.

Change – especially change that feels forced upon us, or is beyond our control – is incredibly difficult.

So my main advice is to find ways you can feel in control of your day-to-day life and make the changes that need to be made at your own pace and in your own way.

This is a central principle of what we call “exposure therapy” for anxiety, slow steady progress in ways the client feels they have a sense of control over.

It’s important for us all to remember that it’s understandable to feel some anxiety – Covid is in the community. Having said that, we have to balance this against making sure that feelings of fear don’t prevent us from living, working and doing what needs to be done.

So it may be worth talking to your employer about whether continuing to work from home – even some of the week – is possible, or what measures they’re putting in place to ensure your workplace is as safe as it can be.

And when it comes to the rest of your life, do what works for you and your whānau, and feel free to take it at your own pace.

Personally, I remain a big fan of click and collect – I never much liked going into shops anyway!

But perhaps the one area to make sure you are pushing yourself in is with relationships and connections with the important people in your life. Because if there’s something worth taking the risk for, it’s this. Many of us have been starved of meaningful in-person contact with others, and if one thing gets you over the hump of the anxiety and out in the world again, I hope it’s that.

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