A level of anxiety post-lockdown is completely valid and normal

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This past week has been momentous for many, right around Melbourne. Many businesses opened their doors for the first time in 16 weeks, across retail, hospitality and beauty – and 4.9 million people who spent the last 111 days in hard lockdown were finally rewarded with a sense of freedom.

North Fitzroy after the lockdown. Credit:Eddie Jim

From 723 cases and 13 deaths on our most lethal day, July 30, down to zero cases for two days in a row less than two months later. We survived the world’s longest pandemic-related lockdown. We did it Melbourne, we bloody did it!

Walking down the street on Wednesday's first day of trade, you could feel the optimism and energy bouncing out of cafes and bars as the sun shone across our beautiful city. You could feel overwhelmingly how excited everyone was to finally see their friends and family together again after so long.

But amongst the joy and enthusiasm, there’s also a level of anxiety that many of us are feeling, less spoken about perhaps due to the buzz of our city opening back up, but yet a topic that needs to be normalised after being forced to isolate and avoid social situations for so long.

We’ve spent the last 111 days in a controlled environment, and for many months living 23/7 confined to the four walls of our homes. Many of us have adjusted to working from home or relying on Zoom calls and deliveries from Uber drivers as our only means of human interaction.

Since March, we all adapted to new routines to get us through each day. Our weekends quickly became less spontaneous with only four reasons to leave home, and our worlds became dramatically smaller as we were restricted to seeing only one friend per day.

We have done an incredible job to get to where we are today, no other place in the world has tamed a second wave this large, and nothing should take away from the re-opening of our city or the tremendous effort of all Victorians. But as we re-enter society, we shouldn’t ignore the elephant that may be trembling in the room.

For those who have lost jobs, there is now the financial stress of the city opening up. The reality sinking in that we may not be able to enjoy life as frivolously as we used to, the fear of not being able to pay rent, or the guilt of not being able to support our economy with less change in our pockets, particularly to support small businesses who are struggling too.

Some of us are still dealing with the anxiety of wearing masks and the sensation of not being able to breathe. For others, it’s the nervousness of seeing grandparents for the first time in a while. Many of us are also worried about our loved ones overseas, in countries where the virus is spiralling out of control.

Some may be overwhelmed by a sensory overload, going from zero to one hundred in a matter of weeks. There’s noticeably more traffic on the road, visibly more people gathering in parks, all contributing to a significant increase of social stimulation that we haven’t felt in months.

For some, lockdown and the pandemic may have increased their anxiety, and for others it might have made it much worse. There are people whose anxiety went away with the elimination of social pressure during lockdown – who are now feeling unease as things open back up.

And of course, the virus is still out there, as is the risk of a third wave. At a time where we should all be celebrating, it's also OK to acknowledge that feeling a level of anxiety post-lockdown is completely valid and normal.

But it's also important to remember that as hard as it was to adjust to lockdown life, we did it – as challenging as it was. And if we were able to do that, then we will be able to find ways to adapt to what this “new normal” will be.

Whether it was freedom, a job, their home, business or a loved one, every single Victorian lost something when our lives dramatically changed at the end of March. It might just take some a bit of time for our confidence and stamina for socialising to come back.

So, as we “get on the beers” and celebrate the outstanding job we have done on a global scale, hopefully we can make room for conversations around the anxiety that the pandemic has caused too. It might mean fewer people feel the remanence of isolation, as lockdown comes to an end.

Carolyn Cage is a Melbourne writer.

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