Have we replaced FOMO with FOGO?! 

As we near the end of May you cannot turn on the radio without talk about the big move to ‘phase two.’ This significant sounding moment opens the door officially to our next season, this new way of living where we manage the ongoing existence of covid19 with a return to as much of ‘normal’ life as we can.

And so much of that is about good things! But in this time there is something lurking for many people which we need to talk about - an unexpected blot on the landscape as we try to enjoy this return to some normality: anxiety. As we return to being more able to leave our houses; as the strict rules that have governed and restricted out lives are gradually lessened many people have felt not relief and freedom but a new thing that limits them - gnawing fear or worries or just a vague dis-ease at the thought of going out - or returning to work - or just to normal life.

But why do things we used to do every day without a care in the world suddenly make us anxious? How do you handle it if the thought of going back to your everyday makes you want to hide away? Has COVID changed us so much that we have swapped an old problem for a new one? Have we replaced FOMO (fear of missing out) are we now facing FOGO (fear of going out)?!

Natural anxiety

The thing is, some degree of anxiety at this time is normal, and to be expected. Lockdown has lasted for a significant period of time - over 8 weeks. in this period our government and media communicated powerfully about the level of risk we faced. The message was clear - stay safe by staying in. So we came to associate our homes with safety - leaving home with potential risk. For good reason. And over that couple of months we also became used to our new way of living and adjusted so that it felt normal. Both of these things mean that what we face now is a significant change - even though it may be a return to a pre-lockdown routine right now it feels different and new - and a step into a space that we have been taught to associate with risk. 

So as we step into this latest adjustment to our way of living, there is an inevitable impact on our minds - and both trigger the same system - the so-called fight or flight system.

You see, your brain uses your normal routine to feel safe and secure. Think of it like climbing a cliff - your normal routine is like reaching for handholds you know are there - you don’t have to think about it. Any significant adjustment from that normality requires your brain to work harder - and to make sure it steps up to that work, it triggers your stress system. This system coordinates anything that requires a response - including brain level responses around planning, motivation, and attention. So even though change might not b e distressing - might even be positive - it can be stressful just because it involves change.

In this time although we are returning to something vaguely resembling normal, that stress response is magnified by the occasional jarring note of something new. So shopping feels normal - but that distanced queue for 40 minutes in 2m stages does not. Taking your kids to school might feel normal - but the restrictions around how they can attend definitely don’t. 

Fight or flight - your stress response

The interesting thing about your physiological stress system is that it is the same system that coordinates the emotional reaction we call anxiety - the so-called ’fight or flight’ system. 

Anxiety is what we describe how it feels when our brains trigger that system to warn of something potentially risky happening. It grabs our attention, changes our focus to wherever it may need to be, and makes sure we don’t miss anything important. Anxiety is vital - but it isn’t very thought out. Much like a smoke alarm, it often goes off unnecessarily - and sometimes needs to be recalibrated when a situation has changed and the level of risk has dropped. 

In this situation we have spent two months effectively training our brains to see going out as risky. And we had considerable help to do that because of the way things were communicated. But now we have to retrain our minds to accept and tolerate a level of risk - and to try to make decisions about what that means. This is not easy - and it takes time.

In addition to this, the changes we’re managing have raised our baseline stress system as our minds work harder. Imagine your level on that fight or flight system like a 0-10 scale. Something happening in your world that triggered a 1 step anxiety spike is easy enough to cope with when your baseline is low. But what if it was already up at 7? Suddenly that little thing starts to feel bigger … starts to feel a bit much, may even feel overwhelming. You can see why some of the challenges we face right now can sometimes feel too much. 

So - anxiety is natural, likely - and a very human response to this moment in the COVID crisis. The question is not therefore how can you avoid it - but how do you MANAGE it? 

Here are three tips - how to ACE your anxiety!…

Anticipate anxiety! The worst kind of anxiety is when it hits us unawares, either building up quietly so we only notice it when it is blazing or suddenly flares up unexpectedly. If we expect it - and are ready for it, we can hold it much better. So it helps to know that at this time there are good reasons your brain might trigger anxiety. And - much like when your smoke alarm goes off because someone is cooking toast, you can press an emotional reset button. So don’t be caught unawares or feel you have to run scared from your anxiety. Remember your brain is just warning you something MIGHT be risky - not that it definitely IS. Take appropriate steps to stay safe in this time and do not be alarmed by the priceless of anxiety as your brain gets used to this next stage. And you might find it helpful to practice some breathing exercises to help you feel in control in anxious moments - you can read more about some good ones to try here.

Create opportunities to win back ground. It helps with anxiety and stress if rather than trying to make all the changes at once, we can gradually move forwards in manageable steps. This is the more important the more powerfully you are feeling the pang of fear as you think about returning to your more normal life - whether that is taking your kids to school, returning to work, or just leaving the house after such a long time. The temptation might be to stay cocooned and safe until the last minute - but instead can you break down what you will need to do into smaller steps? So you could take a walk with your kids past the school one day before you need to take them there, go for a walk in a park so you get used to being around people again (even at a distance that can feel surprisingly weird now!) or go out to buy essential supplies so you feel ready to return to work. These actions are so much easier when they are choices rather than things you feel forced to do - positive actions you have decided on rather than things you dread but cannot escape. So make as many as you can in the run back to normal.

Edge forwards. We’re often so hard on ourselves. And our all or nothing brains beat us up when we feel that we have failed -but maybe we just expected too much in the first place. So in this new time, remember you are human and it is ok to find this weird and tough and a bit freaky. So edge forwards instead of trying to do it all in one leap. Each little step you take will trigger a small burst of anxiety - but smaller than if you did them all at once. Plus, each time you do it - and your brain realises nothing bad happens - the anxiety will settle a tiny bit. So if you are really anxious think of the smallest step you could make, and repeat that until it feels easier. Then think about the next little step you could take - and take it one step at a time. You may find you reach a point where suddenly it feels ok - most of us will find we get used to being back to more normal patterns of life sooner than we expect (starting is nearly always the hardest part) - but don’t be too hard on yourself if it takes a bit of time. 

Kate Middleton, 22/05/2020
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