‘You’re relearning’: social anxiety rises in lead-up to end of NSW lockdown lifting

By Rafqa Touma
Stock photo of teenage girl feeling depressed
‘When people started calling it freedom day, I felt the pressure of needing to be social, to reclaim that time lost in lockdown.’ Photograph: Mixmike/Getty Images

For months, the end of New South Wales’s lockdown has been teasingly out of reach. But as many welcome the easing of restrictions under the state government’s roadmap, for others the return to normal is a cause for anxiety.

Alannah Webb, who lives with her family in Sydney’s west, describes feeling dread the moment reopening dates were revealed.

“When … people started calling it freedom day, I felt the pressure of needing to be social, to reclaim that time lost in lockdown,” the 19-year-old says.

Thrust into lockdown just after starting a new retail job and entering her mid-year university break, Webb says “endless weeks of nothing” have made her “habits of sociability deteriorate”.

Webb fears it will be a struggle to get back into the rhythm of being social. “Even just catching up with friends, I don’t know where the conversation is going to go,” she says. “What have you been doing in lockdown? Nothing?”

Webb still needs to complete university online once the state reopens, and she is nervous about unlearning the routine of lockdown. “It took us weeks to get into the habit of lockdown, and we have just started to get used to it. And the longer lockdown went on, the worse the anxiety of leaving it got.

“Any shift to a routine is stressful,” she says. “But the scale of this is so much bigger than most people experience. You’re relearning how to exist in a work environment, be comfortable among a crowd on public transport, and just talk to people again.”

Linda Marigliano
Linda Marigliano says she can ‘already feel a social anxiety creeping in’. Photograph: Jess Gleeson/Linda Marigliano

The ABC’s Linda Marigliano, who films weekly podcasts from her home in Sydney’s Darling Point, says living alone in lockdown has helped her “prioritise myself for the first time”.

She feels the “collective excitement” of getting to sit in a restaurant and dance in a nightclub again, but Marigliano also says: “There’s levels of anxiety that come into play, especially in terms of having to learn to say no.

“I can already feel a social anxiety creeping in, thinking about non-essential plans that could very easily take over your calendar, just because you feel like you should be doing something.”

Mental health experts have said the feeling of unease at resuming faster-paced, busier lives will be common.

For Marigliano, lockdown has been a reprieve from that rush. “So much of my life has been about packing the days, nights, weekends and saying yes to more work.”

While reintegrating back into society after lockdown, she says, it will be important to “learn boundaries” and “keep them in place”.

For her friends in the music and hospitality industries, reopening is “full speed ahead”. On the other end of the spectrum, some friends “mute group chats” and “never want to see another picnic again”.

“I think I sit somewhere in the middle,” Marigliano says. “Making plans to have no plans is just as legitimate as filling your Saturday with a brunch, then a walk, then a drink at a bar and a restaurant.

“Taking it day by day will be really important. And just carving out time for people that matter – yourself being the one that matters the most.”

Webb is re-entering the social scene slowly. “The other day I booked tickets to see a show in January.”

She says she is booking events that far into the future because, “although part of me misses normalcy, subconsciously I’m dreading rushing into it”.

“There is anxiety about going back into the public and worrying about an outside perception of you that you don’t worry about when you’re at home in an oversized T-shirt.”

At the same time, she says, “another part of me doesn’t want to miss out on opportunities to be social – especially after those opportunities were first taken away because of the lockdown”.

Lloyd Viray, 20, says lockdown in Sydney’s inner west has been “stagnant”.

“Usually it is healthy to have a routine,” he says. “So it’s a bit of a paradox that the routine of this lockdown has felt toxic and restricted.”

Viray feels a mix of excitement and anxiety as the state reopens. However, unlike Webb, the anxiety he feels “is not really about the social stuff”. Instead, Viray describes the feeling of uncertainty that the state may be hit in the future by another sudden lockdown.

“It is like there’s this cloud hanging over you,” he says. “At any second a storm can come down and take everything from you again.”

Reflecting on March, following “a few golden months of less worry”, Viray says his and his friends’ thoughts on Covid were “complacent”.

“As a country, we looked to be doing really well. Stress about Covid wasn’t at the front of our minds. Then the week of 20 June came and took months and months away,” he says. “And I’m just really worried that is going to happen again.”


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