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.
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 can reopen,” she said, likening it to a ticking time bomb.
Now, with the help of counseling, as well as support from her family and boyfriend, Clement said she has started to move past that sense of panic, giving herself small, achievable goals, making plans and easing back into socializing.
But not everyone has been able to receive the help they need during lockdowns.
Emma Turner, the deputy CEO of mental health charity Mind in Croydon, based in south London, said she was expecting to see a surge in demand for services as people start to re-enter the world.
Though many of Mind’s counseling services have remained open over the past year, most were delivered remotely and so were not accessible to everyone.
“Lots of people waited to come in person. Now they have resurfaced and they need support immediately,” Turner said, adding that some put off seeking treatment, thinking the pandemic would soon be over.
When Johnson announced the last extension of the lockdown, he told the British public: “We must, as far as possible, learn to live with this disease as we live with other diseases.”
That is an alarming prospect for many. “It’s my biggest fear,” said Penny, a 52-year-old accountant, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “I have no idea how I can go out and live with Covid, and live with that constant fear of getting ill.”
Penny, who is immunocompromised and lives alone, has barely left her south London home or had any in-person contact over the last year. She says the lockdown has triggered severe anxiety and panic attacks.
Despite receiving both Covid-19 shots, she is continuing to shield from the virus. “Some friends will call and ask if I’m still isolating. They say, ‘You can’t sit at home forever,’” she said. “I want to go out, but I can’t. I feel trapped.”
“The life I had is gone,” she added.
The crippling social isolation of living alone during the pandemic has been particularly acute in Britain, where the government effectively made sex between single people who were not living together illegal during the first lockdown; even after it lifted, later restrictions were similarly stringent, only allowing single people to form “support bubbles” with one other household.
Dr. Elise Paul, who leads the UK COVID-19 Social Study, says she often gets asked: “Will people bounce back?”
“And the answer is, we just don’t know. It’s gone on so long,” she said. “In terms of single people, or people living alone, they have been reporting more depression symptoms, and more loneliness.”
Families are also struggling with the effects of the pandemic. A recent study published by Britain’s Office of National Statistics found that 39% of those who are married or in a civil partnership reported high levels of anxiety, compared with 19% pre-pandemic. The rise was fueled, in part, by the burden of caring for others while juggling other responsibilities.
Jessica Pan, a London-based author and self-described introvert, said the first lockdown had rekindled her social anxiety, leaving her feeling scared and isolated just as she found out she was pregnant with her first child.
For her book Sorry I’m Late, I Didn’t Want to Come, Pan spent a year prior to the pandemic living life as an out-and-out extrovert. Now, as a new mother, fearful for her baby’s health, she finds herself turning down almost all social engagements.
During a heatwave in June, Pan was tempted by an invitation to a friend’s garden – the holy grail in a city with little air conditioning. Her son played with other babies in a paddling pool, something he had never done before, while she chatted with other parents from her antenatal class who she’d only ever met on Zoom. The next day her son came down with a fever, sending her into a tailspin of regret.
“Thankfully, he tested negative. But it’s not worth the risk. I don’t want to lie awake at night with my heart racing wondering if I have Covid, or if I’ve given my child Covid,” she said. “The ability to be carefree is just gone and it’s so sad.”
Weighing the risks of rejoining society has supercharged anxious tendencies for many, and given rise to new fears for others.
While researchers wait to see whether one of the world’s strictest lockdowns sparks a mental health crisis, one thing is clear from conversations with dozens of Brits: Many are feeling some sort of reopening anxiety.
“We did this survey on well-being at my work and they did one of those word clouds where they asked everyone to type in what they were feeling. I said I was feeling tired and anxious, and those were the two biggest words by far,” Grew said, stroking her cat Nelson.
“The problem with being isolated like this is you’re often thinking, ‘I’m a freak. Everybody else is fine and doing great while I seem to be really struggling.’ So even just knowing that other people are feeling like this, it’s comforting.”
If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). If you’re in Britain, call Samaritans on 116 123 (24/7) or visit nhs.uk/conditions/suicide.
The NHS website offers tips on how to cope with post-lockdown anxiety. You can also find a list of additional resources on Mind.org.uk.
For support internationally, a worldwide directory of resources and hotlines is provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention.