Lockdowns ended months ago, so why are we still acting weird?

After it was announced that household COVID contacts were no longer required to isolate in Victoria and NSW, it seemed that we’d crossed one of the final barriers to the post-COVID “new normal” we’d been longing for.

Yet why do so many of us feel anything but our pre-pandemic selves?

While lockdown may be over, its lingering effects are causing long-term effects on our mental health, experts say.Credit:iSock

For this writer, the past month has been peppered with incidences of emotional or angry outbursts. I’ve nervously stood back while an elderly woman screamed at a bottle shop attendant; I’ve overheard a fellow café patron phone police about a man trying to attack her through her car window out the front; and I’ve seen tears glisten the eyes of many loved ones reporting how out-of-sorts they feel.

Meanwhile, 71 per cent of NSW drivers experienced road rage last year; there are viral videos galore of people lashing out everywhere from ski fields to airports; and Hollywood stars are being slapped on the Oscars stage.

These incidents may all seem standalone, but describe them together and there seems to be a theme of edginess, which is anything but surprising to Melbourne psychologist Donna Cameron.

“The pandemic may be coming to an end but the impact this last two years has had on people and their mental health is just beginning,” she says.

“This is the ‘adjustment period’ where people are entering the next chapter of this pandemic that changed their world forever over two years. Many people are uncertain and fearful of not only what this new world looks like for them, but also how they fit back into it.”

So while we might be back in offices, at school and in the company of family and friends, a lot of us are still nursing lingering stress levels, which can play out in exhaustion and misfired outbursts.

“We may be through the acute shock and fear stage of the pandemic but we’re emerging from this with chronic stress,” explains Dr Elise Bialylew, a doctor trained in psychiatry and founder of Mindful in May.

“When our brains are under chronic stress, we have less capacity to regulate ourselves and manage emotions like anger, fear and frustration. We’re in this transitional space which feels a little disorientating and unsettling.”

At the same time, many of us are trying to find a way to apply the personal lessons we learnt during lockdown.

“When everything opened up, it was like the lights coming back on in a nightclub at 5am – it was dramatic and intense and not many people gave themselves the time needed to adjust and slowly enter the world again,” Cameron says. “There were family and friends to see straight away, restaurants and cafés to return to, work desks to sit at – and traffic.”

Cameron says that too much busyness too quickly has left a lot of us overwhelmed and exhausted.

“When everything opened up, it was like the lights coming back on in a nightclub at 5am.”

“When the body feels there is too much going on, it will try to release the stress and it does this through anger and tears – tears are a sign that a person is taking on too much too soon and needs to step it back a notch,” she explains.

“You might not be able to ‘see’ the impact the pandemic has had on your mental health but it has impacted you and everyone around you.”

How to really recover

Take comfort in the fact that most of us are still finding our post-pandemic feet.

“I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a [public] conversation around this because naming an experience helps us to recognise it within ourselves,” Bialylew says.

“It’s probably more normal than ‘not normal’ to be feeling out of sorts still and now is the time to be doing anything that you can do to actively tend to your own wellbeing and self-care.”

Bialylew suggests going back to self-care basics with meditation, good sleep hygiene, healthy food and regular exercise to start to heal our nervous systems.

Cameron calls for more acceptance of our weird feelings, and less analysis.

“Validate the feelings you are having but do not try to understand or make sense of them – just name them and accept them,” she suggests.

“Make sure you’re listening to your emotions and if you need to cancel a night out now and then, do it.”

She says that setting positive boundaries is achievable for most of us.

“Let’s try and see the pandemic as a reset – it taught many of us the importance of having [both] downtime and social connections,” she says.

“Learn to listen to your body and watch for the signs for when you need downtime and when you need social time.”

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