When Freedom Brings Fear
The different countries of the UK are approaching the release of restrictions in slightly different ways - but particularly in England where all legal restrictions are due to end on 19th July, levels of anxiety and distress have been significant as people contemplate what this means for their own circumstances.
So how do we respond well to this situation - for ourselves and other people?
Understand why anxiety is likely to be inevitable
Whatever your circumstances and whatever you think of the wisdom of your own region’s approach (Wales has already announced it will be continuing to enforce the wearing of masks in public spaces, for example), recognise that this is a BIG change!!
Even if this is basically GREAT news for you personally, change like that demands more from your mind. Going back to what used to be normal requires as much adapting, getting used to a new routine, thinking differently, overcoming different challenges as going into lockdown did way over a year ago. That raises your stress level - even if it is good stuff. And we’re all still very tired, so don’t have a lot of capacity to manage more - so don’t be surprised if this feels a bit overwhelming.
In particular though, we’re going to have to get used to doing things that for a year+ our minds have learned to link with danger and risk. These are real biological links in your mind - emotional links coordinated by your emergency centre in your brain called the amygdala. Don’t assume you will just be able to jump back into them without any challenge. Most people, the first few times at least, will find those things do trigger anxiety - it's the amygdala’s way of grabbing your attention and warning you that you might be about to do something stupid, or dangerous.
Now those links will re-set - but it means almost everyone WILL have some heightened anxiety to manage in the early days and weeks of this new season.
The challenge is greater for those with higher vulnerability…
Of course, this will be MUCH more complex though for those who are at higher risk or have been shielding. Where the implications of being exposed to COVID have at times been SO huge, it is VERY VERY hard to get used to a world where you might be exposed and are supposed to carry on regardless. The magnitude of the possible risk is higher - but so is the change, because many people in this group have left their homes very little even in recent months when things have been gradually getting back to normal.
…But this is a long-awaited moment of celebration for others
Of course, at the same time, some people will find this easy and a source of GREAT celebration! But they are not really the ones that we need to be thinking about and looking out for. So if that is you, swallow your frustration that everyone isn’t in your place. Think about those who are finding this hard and try to empathise with how they are feeling.
A few thoughts and bits of advice for how to navigate this coming season - whatever your own situation …
(1) Take it slow and be kind to yourself
In a situation where we’re almost all going to have to manage some anxiety, it’s good to remember we don’t have to do this all at once. Just because you CAN doesn’t mean you HAVE TO. Take it slow. Try to go step by step where you can. And take time out too - so many people are exhausted. You are not failing if you are not the life and soul of every party right now. Go for the biggest wins to you and your wellbeing - the stuff you will enjoy most. Then let yourself off where you can and make sure you still get time to yourself.
Another REALLY important thing to be kind to yourself is to be wise about what you read and listen to in this time when it feels like EVERYONE is arguing! You know people are emotionally very brittle right now because so many are so exhausted. It means debates are increasingly polarised and people feel victimised and criticised - and often fight back. Even if you don’t get dragged in, reading that stuff or hearing it on the news will raise your stress level further. So be careful. Sometimes you need to take a break.
(2) Don't add MORE difficult/distressing emotion(s)
So often when we’re finding things hard we take the initial emotional load and add to it either FEAR - what is wrong with me, why am I feeling like this? or GUILT - if I were not so stupid I wouldn’t feel like this, if I were a better person I would react differently.
Don’t. A lot of this is biology. It is totally understandable after what we have been through. Give yourself and your brain a break - it will reset and get back into things quicker than you think but it is ok to find things hard at first.
(3) Think about boundaries and try not to be too binary in your thinking
This is particularly important if you are more vulnerable or really finding this hard. Try to find some safe spaces and people where you can ponder decisions over what you do and don’t feel you can do. Don’t leave it till you are under pressure or end up talking with people who make you feel silly for not just leaping back into everything! The more a conversation flares up your anxiety the harder it will be to think straight, so take it slow and keep it safe. Try writing things down, and coming back to them another time if it gets too hard.
Do get some expert advice - you can ask your clinicians etc to help you understand ACTUAL risk and guide your decisions. It is very hard for our minds to respond well to this kind of thing and we often overestimate risks like this - not to say a decision not to do things is wrong but just make sure you get good advice and support to understand what the risks really are to you.
Try not to think just in black or white terms - I do this or not. Instead, think about what boundaries you would need to have in place to help you DO some things but stay and feel safe.
So what would it look like to attend church but not encounter too many people? Is there a quieter service or a safer space in the building? Could you ensure people in that service are masked or is there one without singing? How can you make sure people know you’d rather not hug - these are just a few practical questions to think about.
Within that I would encourage you to have some good conversations around this - with friends and with leaders too where appropriate. For eg with your church leader - to help you plan and be reassured AND to help THEM understand how you are feeling and how to support people in your position.
If you are the leader of a church or another space…
Do talk to those you know are likely to be finding this more complex or difficult. Think about what you can do to help people feel included and able to come - but most important just make sure they know they matter. Much worse than the risk and anxiety right now is the sense many have of being forgotten, unimportant, discarded by a society keen to get on with things at their expense. We don’t want anyone to feel like that. We don’t want anyone to feel alone or forgotten. That we can avoid even in the midst of a lot that we can’t change.
And in the meantime - when the world feels a complex, changeable place, let’s remember that there IS something secure and unchangeable that we can root ourselves in, even in moments like this. This is the opening of Psalm 46, in The Passion Translation:
“God, you’re such a safe and powerful place to find refuge!
You’re a proven help in time of trouble -
more than enough and always available whenever I need you.
So we will never fear even if every structure of support were to crumble away.
We will not fear even when the earth quakes and shakes,
moving mountains and casting them into the sea.
For the raging roar of stormy winds and crashing waves cannot erode our faith in you.”
Whatever this feels like for you, why not pause for a moment, breath and remember - God’s got you. And when everything else may feel crazy and chaos, he’s secure and safe and he will sustain you.