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Freedom & Fear

A piece about the feelings we may be experiencing following lockdown

Words: Kyle MacDonald

Kyle MacDonald is a leading Psychotherapist and Mental Health Advocate in New Zealand. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, is the co-host of the long running Newstalk ZBs mental health focused show ‘The Nutters Club’ and was a panellist at our Sustinere event at Westmoreland last year where we discussed mental health in relation to the hospitality industry. In this piece, Kyle discusses the feelings we may be experiencing following lockdown here in New Zealand, and has some advice for us as we all re-emerge from our Alert Level 4 restrictions. For more on Kyle and his work, head to: psychotherapy.nz

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You could be forgiven for thinking that when we moved from Alert Level 4 to Alert Level 3 here in New Zealand last week that we were ‘free’ and that things are about to get back to ‘normal’ – as seemingly everyone scrambled out the door to (socially distance) and queue for their favourite burger or espresso. But for many it wasn’t so easy to head out the door – and for those of you who found this a relative freedom a little more challenging than others, you are not alone. What you’re feeling is completely okay.

Anxiety is defined as fear in the absence of a clear and present threat. So, anxiety is felt and is present when a definite threat is not really there. But for the last six weeks, there has been a threat, a real threat: Covid-19. We are all living in the midst of a global pandemic, something none of us have ever experienced before, and something very real. So, if what we’re feeling isn’t anxiety, then what we’re feeling is a valid fear. And with fear comes avoidance – it’s the natural survival response we as humans have in built to any threat – it’s that ‘run for the hills!’ feeling.

Humans learn fear very quickly. And in the last few months we have witnessed how quickly much of the world has moved into a state of ‘lockdown’. This speed at which the restraints on our everyday lives have been applied globally is proof as to how efficient fear is as a teacher and motivator. However, because we learn the lesson of fear so well, and adopt it so quickly as a response, it can be very hard to unlearn.

“Here is the key: Do it slowly. Do it gently. Accept that your brain is now sensitive to fear and don’t try to ‘tough it out’ or push yourself too hard.”

 

Now that we here in New Zealand are free to move out of homes, to extend our ‘bubbles’, to move about regionally, collect some ‘contactless’ café lunch items, and to grab ourselves a long awaited and well deserved flat white – it may still feel pretty terrifying to do so. This is the point at which we have moved from a state of fear, to that of anxiety; we are safe, the high-level threat has passed, but our minds still seek to protect us. And to make it even more complicated, a little bit of fear is still a good idea at present, we’re not completely free of Covid-19 in New Zealand, but we just need to try and reduce that feeling of fear so that it doesn’t start to get in the way of our lives and what we enjoy doing.

 

So, if you’re struggling to leave your home, even now you are safely able to do so, and feel a little worried about the extended freedoms we have all been granted – what should you do?  Do these feelings mean that you now ‘have’ anxiety? What if the thought of a delicious flat white and date scone just isn’t enough motivation to head across the threshold of your home?

“It can take some time to ‘unlearn’ fear and anxiety, but rest assured you can. Just be kind to yourself and to one another…”

 

Here is the key: Do it slowly. Do it gently. Accept that your brain is now sensitive to fear and don’t try to ‘tough it out’ or push yourself too hard. Gently validate the fear, breathe, and then set yourself small tasks to move out of your home back out into the world. Perhaps start with a walk to your nearest dairy, or small store and then graduate from there. And remember that we’re all still required to avoid being closer than two metres to one another, so it’s completely okay to avoid people you might come across.

And when you do head out, be sure to validate your fear through action: Wash your hands, take hand sanitiser with you wherever you go, and observe all the advised precautions.

It can take some time to ‘unlearn’ fear and anxiety, but rest assured you can. Just be kind to yourself and to one another and make sure you really enjoy that scone!

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