Navigating Life After Lockdown

COVID-19 has impacted communities in every corner of Australia, and for people living in certain metropolitan and regional areas, lengthy lockdowns added to the burden of the pandemic.


By the time Melbourne exited its sixth lockdown in late October 2021, the city had endured the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown period of 262 days. For months, many workplaces had been deserted in favour of Zoom meetings, children swapped classrooms for computer screens and remote learning, and some businesses were forced to close their doors, never to re-open.


As people emerge from lockdown and savour the sunshine and their regained freedom, there may be an expectation that life will simply snap back to normal. But it may not be quite so straightforward for us to reintegrate into pre-COVID-19 routines.


For many people, this is a time of mixed feelings”, says Professor David Forbes, Director of Phoenix Australia.


“While there is, at some levels, excitement about the return to ‘normal’ life and the relief from the burdens of lockdown, we need to acknowledge the deep toll that the pandemic has taken for many. This toll can be understood in the differential impacts that the pandemic and its consequential restrictions have had across society.


“We know trauma and adversity, and particularly the compounding impacts of multiple adversities can contribute to growing disparities and disadvantage across our community, contributing to a sense that we’re not actually ‘all in this together’. Pending the return to “normal” life, we are acutely conscious that for those who have lost loved ones, livelihoods, been racially vilified or suffered other extreme stresses during the pandemic, the opening up of restrictions still leaves wounds or losses that will take time and support to heal.


Even for those less deeply impacted, there are mixed feelings as families resume normal activities, see loved ones, return to work, and visit their favourite cafes.


“The long lockdown has stretched the boundaries of our mental health and wellbeing, and we’ve seen increases in psychological distress and people reaching out to organisations like Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Kids Helpline. Lockdown has been a significant mental health burden, and it may take more time than people expect to readjust. It may take us a while to recalibrate and, from a mental health perspective, things might not spring back just because restrictions are largely lifted.”


Professor Forbes says the lockdowns limited access to some of the structures important for good mental health, such as routines and social connection. COVID-19 and lockdowns have also had a polarising effect for some families and communities, and opinions and sensitivities may remain high.


“I think we need to be kind to each person’s approach to reintegration. We need to be tolerant, patient and compassionate as people find their feet at different paces,” says Professor Forbes.


“Some people will have lingering uncertainty where COVID case numbers are still quite high. They may be tentative about being out and about. Some friends may be ready to socialise, and others may be reluctant and we need to be understanding of that. There can be an expectation that with restrictions lifted, everything will be OK, and people may not feel they have permission to say that they’re finding it hard to reintegrate.


“The dynamics of work have changed, too. People have become accustomed to working from home, and in the context of potential new work structures people may be feeling unsure about where they fit in.”


Professor Forbes says that recognising if you are struggling post-lockdown, getting support and putting structures in place to help yourself are essential. Understanding that the effects of lockdown may have a longer tail than one expects and that life won’t automatically fall back into place is also crucial.


“Psychologists’ waiting lists have blown out, and there will also be people who have been trying to tough it out. There may be a temptation to say, ‘I toughed it out during lockdown, I should be able to tough it out after lockdown’,” says Professor Forbes.


“Instead, now is the time to get help to deal with issues you’ve been carrying through the lockdown. Re-establishing routines is an important anchor, too, and so are re-establishing social connections and securing financial stability. But all this may take people time.


“What new patterns do you need to get used to? What is the new balance that works for you? Keep things in your life that kept you well during lockdown, and think about what other strategies will help you cope with any new challenges. The basics also matter – eat well, sleep well, exercise and seek help when you need to.”