‘It’s okay not to feel okay’: why many of us will struggle to cope with the ‘new normal’ after ‘Freedom Day’

England has lifted almost all legal Covid lockdown restrictions, bringing an end to social distancing, mask wearing and social contact limits.

In what has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, the country could see most of the normality of pre-Covid times return, as people adjust to life without restrictions.

But will we automatically return to so-called normal life, or has human behaviour been permanently changed by the Covid pandemic?

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‘It’s okay not to feel okay’

In what has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, the country could see most of the normality of pre-Covid times return, as people adjust to life without restrictions (Graphic: Mark Hall)

Antonia Harman, emotional trauma expert and founder of Divine Empowerment, explains that people will be feeling different about the lifting of restrictions, as “the last 18 months has been the strangest of times”.

Ms Harman says that “the first thing to understand and appreciate is that we are all different.”

For example, when it comes to the wearing of face masks, some “will be overjoyed to breathe again, to hear others, see smiles and expressions, and feel the world without the mask,” whereas for others “it will be nerve-wracking to see people maskless”.

As restrictions are lifted, some people may “bounce back immediately,” notes Ms Harman, whereas others “may struggle to get back to it”.

To those who may struggle, Ms Harman’s advice is to “simply take it slowly”.

“Don’t overcommit until you feel ready to. Take it at your own pace. It’s okay not to feel okay. It may take a little getting used to. Dip your toe in and out until you are ready to engage completely.”

Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang says it’s likely some people will adapt faster than others and when it comes to bouncing back after restrictions are lifted, “some will, some will do even better, some won’t”.

She also points out that the easing of lockdown restrictions “has the potential to significantly affect our mental wellness” and some people “might also develop a mild form of social anxiety because of the thought of returning to busier places.”

Behavioural signs of social anxiety include making excuses not to go out, reluctance to speak out and/or avoiding eye contact, and noticeably “enduring” rather than enjoying a social situation.

If you do notice signs of social anxiety in others, or yourself, you should have that conversation and “see what might ease that feeling of fear,” explains Dr Tang, noting that you should “seek help if you need it.”

Psychologist Dr Maryhan Baker adds that rising Covid cases after restrictions ease could add to anxiety, particularly given the regular, data-driven government communication we have received over the past year.

She says: “I think some people will very quickly revert to life without restrictions, almost as though nothing has happened.

“For others, there will be a huge amount of anxiety about life returning to normal as they see the rising numbers of positive Covid cases, they worry about potentially becoming ill themselves.”

‘People’s lives have been changed by the pandemic, and for some this will be permanent’

As life appears to go back to normal, for some of us, the effects of 18 months of lockdown may be more permanent.

The pandemic has seen people make radical changes to their lives, including moving away from cities to the countryside, a change of job and adjustments to the way they work.

Dr Baker says that “it’s undeniable people’s lives have been changed by the pandemic, and for some this will be permanent, whilst for others the effect will be short-lived”.

Families have reconnected during the pandemic, some relationships have healed while others have called time, with “almost everyone” having “their own story to tell of how the pandemic has changed the way they live,” adds Dr Baker.

“There’s been a reminder of just how quickly our lives can change and hopefully a renewed appreciation to be more present in each and every moment.”

Ms Harman adds “there is a possibility that the restrictions have permanently changed people's behaviours,” and that “so much fear pumped in from every direction that anxiety is hard to shift.”

The name ‘Freedom Day’ can be ‘both help and hindrance to people’

The lifting of lockdown restrictions in England has been dubbed ‘Freedom Day’, but the name itself is controversial, with some debate over whether it will help or hinder people preparing for Covid rules to be lifted.

Ms Harman believes that the name ‘Freedom Day’ gives people “a definitive end to a taxing time.”

However, Dr Tang explains that creating an expectation “can be both a help and hindrance to people.”

She notes that although ‘Freedom Day’ gives people something to look forward to and a date to prepare for, if it then “turns out that we aren’t quite as out of lockdown as we thought, that can cause us great distress – especially for those who have planned, and know the risks but July 19 is about the longest they can keep afloat for.”

Dr Tang explains that this is where focusing on building our resilience, centring ourselves, and “gathering our emotional and mental fortitude” as we approach ‘Freedom Day’ and a “new normal” can help.

Although she says it’s clear people have been resilient during the pandemic, it’s now about keeping this going up to 19 July, and then “setting the conditions to thrive” beyond ‘Freedom Day’.

However, Dr Maryhan Baker feels that 19 July being dubbed as ‘Freedom Day’ isn’t “particularly helpful”, as the name “suggests there’s a permeance and an escape from something we are being told we will need to live with for many more years to come.”

Dr Baker explains that the “danger” with language such as this is that it is “likely to lead to behaviour which sits consistently with a permanent freedom, rather than one which needs to take on board a shift in attitude.”