What is Reopening Anxiety?
Google’s most recent television ad features a search bar and montage of images and film clips reflecting pandemic life and how things could look in months to come as restrictions ease and we take tentative steps towards a new-normal. This ad effectively captures the feeling of uncertainty that underscores these febrile times by juxtaposing images reflecting moments of joy, loss, pain and hope with questions that many of us will have Googled ourselves. Questions such as, “things to do outside”, “can we hug now”, and one that had me reaching for my phone mid-advert, “what is reopening anxiety”. The answer felt intuitive even before Google generated a response, yet I felt compelled to engage with this notion over the digital ether that made it possible for so many of us to stay connected.
Keeping distance from one another has, for many months, been an intrinsic element of keeping safe. We spent months finessing a choreography of back-steps and side-steps to allow for the requisite two-meters safety distance around ourselves and others. We learned to read one another’s eyes during muted conversations behind masks. Bubbles and distance and handwashing were safe; handwashing to clean off the dangers we may have touched. Touch, we were told repeatedly, was dangerous.
July 19th will see the lifting of practically all Covid-rules in England. No more masks, no more social distancing and no limits on the number of people who can gather together. Rather than adhere to enforced rules and recommendations, the government has encouraged people to exercise personal judgement in order to assess risk when it comes to the virus. Whilst many are looking forward to an end of these restrictions dubbing the 19th July as ‘Freedom Day’, without the reassurance of clearly defined boundaries in place, there are many others who will meet this date with trepidation.
For people who veer towards introversion, certain aspects of lockdown presented a welcome reprieve from their seemingly relentless social commitments, given that the pressure to perform socially can leave those who experience anxiety feeling low and depleted. During a news conference held at Downing Street on 5th July, the Prime Minister said that "It is very far from the end of dealing with this virus". The combination of a persistent virus coupled with an end to restrictions provides the perfect storm conditions for inducing social anxiety in people who have never experienced it previously.
For those who have a co-dependent dynamic in their relationships, a period of enforced introversion in the form of a mandated lockdown will have had some unexpected benefits. Dr Scott Wetzler at Albert Einstein College of Medicine explains that, “Co-dependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess where one person doesn’t have sufficient autonomy.” There is often a person who takes on the role of care-giver, creating an imbalance whereby that person is needed to an unreasonable degree. Lockdown made it possible for people within these relationships to become physically unavailable to those who cling to them. Restrictions ending mean that the rules which provided much needed emotional distance begin to disappear, yet they open up the opportunity to establish new and lasting boundaries.
At time of writing, just over 60 % of the percent of the UK population over the age of 18 has received both doses of the vaccination. Being able to hug loved ones again is a welcome change but not necessarily possible for those living with long-term illness or those who are medically vulnerable. Individuals required to shield will feel apprehensive about the lack of distancing regardless of whether they have had the vaccine or not. The end of restrictions will also affect pregnant women at work. Pregnancy comes with its own set of worries, which will no doubt be heightened by the fact that social distancing and mask wearing in the work-place will no longer be a requirement. We don’t have a precedent for how to navigate this next bit. There isn’t an established social etiquette that states we keep a respectful distance from pregnant women when living during plague times, but perhaps there ought to be.
Reflecting on the fear and grief that underpinned the start of the pandemic highlights how far we have come. It is indeed a blessing to be able to hug loved ones, and have experiences associated with ‘normal life’ but there is still much uncertainty ahead. The most compassionate way of navigating this period of transition will involve not only being cognizant of our own boundaries but having an awareness and respect of both the physical and emotional boundaries of others.
Written by Yasmina Floyer