Re-entry Anxiety. Be careful what you wish for.

The old adage is particularly salient as tens of thousands of people across Australia slip out of their pjs, dig out travel cards and re-enter workplaces.

Across Australia in the coming months, more of us will be picking up where we left off almost two years ago. Or will we?

Those struggling with the thought of life going back to normal may be experiencing a psychological phenomenon called “re-entry anxiety”.

If that seems like you’ve scored a walk-in part in a space odyssey, psychologists say it’s not as flippant as it sounds.

Named in the 1960s by Jeanne and John Gullahorn, “re-entry syndrome” was a term used to describe the emotional toll of re-joining society. 

The pair developed a “W curve” hypothesis, expanding on an earlier concept of a “U-curve”. Their “W” connected two U-periods to form a “W” that linked the phenomenon of initial entry culture shock with reverse culture shock.

Positive and negative feelings would oscillate until they came to a balance.

They’re feelings University of Melbourne student, Ali, is familiar with.

The 22-year-old says she speaks for a lot of friends who feel the thought of their calendar filling back up is more anxiety-inducing, than liberating.

“When the first extended lockdown ended last year, I found it really hard to ease back into social settings,” she said.

“Now that we’re into our sixth lockdown, I can’t think of anything worse than being in a large crowd.

“I’m so used to working and studying remotely and living in a virtual world that the thought of interacting face-to-face makes me quite anxious.”

London based psychologist Kylie Bains said people have been forced to adjust to lockdowns and restrictions on daily routines which is unprecedented for most of us.

“Some people may be worried about going out in public, or simply being around others and contracting Covid,” she said.

“Many of us will be resilient but still, it’s a lot of change in a relatively short period of time.”

She said depression and anxiety — driven by loneliness and exhaustion – were the most common mental health struggles brought on by the pandemic.

In some workplaces, fewer people have been doing more work. Those still working, often in different circumstances, may feel physically and mentally exhausted.

Some industries have reported increased sick leave but conversely, employers also are saying people are trying harder.

Bains said for those finding it difficult to go back to work, exhaustion can turn to resentment and it may be harder to pick up where you left off, at least with the same level of energy and commitment. 

The psychologist, however, adds there have been some positives.

“It’s also important to say the crisis has brought people together and there’s definitely been a silver lining in collaboration and empathy for each other that’s resulted,” she said.

And she agrees with a large body of colleagues who argue going back to work is good for mental health.

Still, they stress it’s important to give yourself permission to feel the way you do.

“Anxiety is not where anyone wants to be,” she said. “So, it’s important to allow yourself to feel what you do and to remind yourself that everyone will deal with this differently. Comparing your reactions to others isn’t productive.”

Bains said practical steps employers can take to help their teams include emphasising the extent to which employee strengths and contributions are valued.

“The importance of informal connections beyond Teams/Zoom also is critical,” she said.

“We can also support our employees by encouraging sharing of personal experiences and openness and creating support networks, as well as the licence for people to spend time using them.”

She suggests creating time to talk about issues, using positive psychology techniques to help. “Positive Reframing”, connecting with nature, being vulnerable and visualisation are all valuable.

Other tips:

  • Seek help if needed. Therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy is the gold standard for anxiety disorders
  • Relaxation techniques, including mindfulness
  • Ask family and friends for support

Whether it’s going for a coffee with friends, using that gym membership you swore you’d smash at least three times a week or ditching virtual meetings and seeing colleagues face to face, take it slowly.

“This too shall pass,” Bains said. “We’ll ‘get over’ the pandemic but it will take time.”

And she has a final suggestion. It can be helpful to think about how you’d like to look back on this time and reflect on how you handled the crisis.

 What would make you proud?