By Eliza Mackintosh
Photographs by Sarah Tilotta
Updated 8:44 PM ET, Tue July 6, 2021
London (CNN)In May, as the United Kingdom began to emerge from one of the world’s longest and most stringent lockdowns, Kitty Grew started doing dry-runs of the commute from her home in north London to her office five miles away.
Most evenings now, after logging off and closing her laptop, the 27-year-old unfolds her red Brompton bicycle, puts on her helmet and sets off down a suburban lane of terraced houses toward the city.
“I have been trying to practice, to go out every day and go a bit further and a bit further,” said Grew, who works as a project manager for Britain’s National Health Service, helping to organize London’s Covid-19 vaccination rollout.
These practice runs, which she describes as a kind of exposure therapy, are her way of mentally preparing for a return to the office in August or September — the date has yet to be decided.
“It’s like training to run a marathon,” she added.
Before the pandemic, Grew would take the bus or the London Underground to work. But during lockdown her anxiety and agoraphobia, which she had kept at bay before, worsened. Leaving home, even to walk around her neighborhood, became daunting.
The last time she went on the Tube — now plastered with signs asking passengers to wear masks and maintain social distancing — was in January 2020.
As Britain looks to shake off the last of its coronavirus restrictions, despite an ongoing battle to contain a shape-shifting virus that continues to spin off new variants, many Britons such as Grew are finding the idea of returning to the office, taking crowded public transport or grabbing a pint with friends at a busy pub overwhelming, if not terrifying.
“A lot of my friends have sort of adjusted,” said Grew. “As soon as things were unlocking they were like, ‘I can’t wait to go clubbing, I can’t wait to go to festivals or go away.’ And I’m just like, ‘Oh my God, I feel anxious just to go on the bus to my work.'”
“I can’t imagine getting on a plane and going to a different country, or even going to a club,” said Grew, who has been seeing a therapist to work on coping mechanisms.
England was originally set to mark “freedom day” — when the final remnants of its lengthy lockdown would end — on June 21, but the government hit pause until July 19 amid concerns over the Delta virus variant first identified in India, also known as B.1.617.2.
The decision sparked an outcry from some corners of the population desperate to put the pandemic behind them. #ImDone trended on Twitter and British tabloids ran foreboding headlines about the future — The Sun newspaper asked “Will we ever be free?” beneath the words “Nation’s torment” on its front page.
This week, Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his plan to shift the focus away from legal requirements to personal responsibility for things such as social distancing and mask wearing.
But he also issued a stark warning that “this pandemic is far from over and it will certainly not be over by [July] 19th,” explaining that Covid-19 cases are still rising across the United Kingdom. “I don’t want people to feel that this is, as it were, the moment to get demob-happy, this is the end of Covid … it is very far from the end of dealing with this virus,” he said.
While many people have rushed joyfully back to restaurants, salons and shops since the first restrictions were loosened in mid-April, not everyone is relishing the move toward a full reopening.
“We have been trained over the past 18 months that being around people and being out in the world is associated with a threat,” said psychologist and author Emma Kavanagh. “Our brain is now attuned to that, so of course it’s going to trigger a stress response when we expose ourselves again.”
Kavanagh began researching neurological responses to extreme environments last March, when the first lockdown in Britain began, after she tested positive for Covid-19 and found herself struggling with anxiety.
“I was hysterical, I thought I couldn’t survive this level of stress,” she recalled. “I couldn’t concentrate. I was like everyone else, I was falling apart.”
While suffering from long Covid and homeschooling her children, Kavanagh took to social media to share her research into burnout, brain fog and the other surreal symptoms now synonymous with pandemic life.
Her Twitter threads quickly went viral; their subject matter is the focus of her latest book, How to be Broken, which offers insights into coping with sustained stress.
For those who fear they may never be ready to return to normal — or whatever “new normal” comes next — Kavanagh offers one key piece of advice: Give it time. “A significant number of people who are exposed to trauma don’t just show resilience, they also show post-traumatic growth,” she told CNN.
Still, some psychologists predict that the heightened levels of anxiety and depression experienced during lockdowns won’t just disappear when restrictions ease.
The unprecedented stress and isolation of the pandemic could spark a “social recession” with profound and lasting impacts on our health, happiness and productivity, newly-reappointed US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has warned.
Though the long-term effects are not yet known, researchers have expressed concerns that behaviors developed during lockdowns — compulsive hygiene habits, fear of public spaces or constant checking for Covid symptoms — will make it difficult for some people to reenter society.
A recent study carried out by leading helpline charity Anxiety UK revealed the proportion of people looking forward to resuming normal life and those who would rather stay home was virtually the same: 36%.
The Mental Health Foundation, which has been conducting a nationwide study of the pandemic’s impact on mental health in Britain, found that during the country’s third lockdown that started in January fewer people felt anxious, but more reported feeling lonely and ground down by the stress of the past year.
Catherine Seymour, the foundation’s head of research, said certain groups were of particular concern, including young people, individuals who are unemployed, single parents and people with pre-existing mental health problems and disabilities, who reported feeling significantly more distressed, compared with British adults generally.
“The longer you feel lonely the more chronic it becomes and actually the harder it is to then re-engage in activities,” Seymour said. “For people who have been shielding, or have had a lot of their socialization opportunities shut down — which includes many teenagers who haven’t been able to go to school and haven’t had activities available to them — it can be much harder to then reintegrate. We lose a certain amount of confidence in our ability to go out into the world.”
Faced with school closures, curtailed social lives and being at the end of the line for vaccines, young people have borne the brunt of sacrifices primarily meant to protect older people who are at greater risk from Covid-19.
But a belief that they would come out the other side of the pandemic more resilient may have been overblown, some psychologists and behavioral scientists say.
“I’m struggling to imagine things going back to how they were,” said Amy Clement, a 26-year-old stage manager living in London. “The first half of the pandemic I felt like I could hold on to what I had before, but now it’s been so long I feel like I’m having to start fresh.”
Last year, life seemed full of possibility to Clement, who had landed her dream job working backstage on The Lion King, touring the United Kingdom and Ireland. But when the pandemic hit, the show was canceled and she found herself living back home with her family.
As the British government lifted, reimposed and then extended its series of lockdowns over the past year, Clement said she had been left feeling increasingly anxious about the future, unsure she would ever feel ready to return to work or to go out with friends. “It was a constant sort of bubbling fear of when we
One of the world’s strictest lockdowns is lifting
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