Like most people, there have been times this year when I have felt anxious. For me, I generally seemed to be okay during the daylight hours, but my anxiety manifested through disrupted sleep and the weirdest of dreams. It's not unusual to feel anxious or have bad dreams during times of stress. For me, stress is a part of life and I have developed many ways to deal with it over the years.
Many of you have probably felt the same way, particularly this year, and there is a silent minority out there who are still very anxious about the pandemic.
While most people are either excited to get back to normal, or quietly just going about their business in a COVID-safe way, there are those among us who are still very nervous about getting out and about and doing things that they wouldn't have thought twice about doing 12 months ago. Maybe this is because they have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the disease, or maybe they've adapted to working from home so well that they have just gotten out of the habit of seeing others in real life, to the extent that the thought of doing so is a scary prospect.
This is all very understandable. I still remember how weird it felt leaving the house to go to the gym or a restaurant or a face-to-face meeting for the first time in months after our relatively short lockdown was over back in April/May. The problem is, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to get out there. This in turn can be very debilitating and result in long term damage to your health, therefore staying home long term and just waiting for a vaccine is not recommended.
If you are feeling this way, don't despair. There are things you can do to help yourself but there's also help available if you need it. Below I offer some practical ways to face the fear of catching the disease and allow yourself to transition into the COVID world. I need to caveat this advice by saying that I know things aren't going so well for those of you in other countries and indeed many people are going back into lockdown across Europe. Hopefully these are useful tips for when things do settle down again.
The risk is low in Australia
Let me start by emphasising that the situation here in Australia is very good at present and with luck and good management it can remain that way. Last week there were quite a few COVID cases reported across the country for people in quarantine who had returned from overseas, but only two cases of community spread from an unknown source (both in NSW). This is a remarkable achievement and one for which we can all feel a sense of pride. This means that your risk of catching COVID is very, very low in this country. It is not zero but with sensible precautions it is very close. We have also learned to treat the disease far more effectively, with new medications and improved management techniques. This is all great news but of course doesn't mean that the danger has completely gone away, which is why we all need to continue to be COVID-safe.
Go slow and stay outdoors
My recommendation for getting out and about again is to start slowly and give yourself as much time as you need to enter the world again. For me this was doing a mental risk assessment and working out how I could socialise in the safest possible way. My first step was to meet someone for coffee at an outdoor setting (despite the Canberra chill at that time), and then I moved on to larger groups, again outside. Outside is much safer than inside, as the risk of transmission of COVID-19 by aerosol diminishes, and with the warmer weather on its way this is a great option for as long as you need it to be.
Don't be rushed back to the office
Most of us have learned to work or study very effectively at home over the past few months. In many cases, it may be totally acceptable for you to continue doing so but it doesn't have to be an 'either/or' situation - perhaps a compromise may be healthy. For instance, you might want to come in for important meetings or tutorials once a week, then build to one or two days a week. Please keep in contact with your supervisor or manager about how you are feeling. They will understand and support you if you let them know that you want to take it slowly.
Masks are an added level of security
While risk is low outdoors, you can add an extra level of security by wearing a mask, and this may even help to transition you to more indoor settings. When I first wore a mask on campus it felt weird and I know I got a few funny looks, but now it's not unusual to see people out and about wearing masks. When my partner and I recently went shopping for the first time since March we both wore masks, and no one really gave us a second glance, much less commented. It's not mandated in most states of Australia, but it has become part of normal life.
Maintain your 1.5m bubble
I am still conscious of my invisible 1.5m bubble. When people come too close to me I automatically "bounce back" from them and this doesn't seem to cause offence. In the past, people might have thought I was weird or paranoid; now they seem to understand. Indeed, it is a reminder to them that they still need to keep their distance. I also have a non-touch barrier technique that I developed early in the pandemic as a substitute for handshaking. I know some people touch elbows or feet but for me it's a namaste gesture. This shows respect but reminds people to stay away and don't touch. Again - it seems to work.
Practice good hygiene
This goes without saying but it is a constant chore to remind ourselves to watch what we touch and wash or sanitise our hands frequently. I am not perfect at this, but I do try and use sleeves or other body parts to open the door, wash my hands regularly, wipe down common surfaces after I have used them, use sanitiser whenever I see it, and carry sanitiser with me wherever I go. If you are really concerned, then using gloves to touch common surfaces is also perfectly acceptable provided you change them frequently.
You can't change the behaviour of others
When you are out there is no doubt you will see some people forgetting or ignoring these fundamental public health rules. They may be sitting too close together or be shaking hands or hugging people as a greeting. Just remember - they are putting themselves and those they touch at risk, so it's their problem not yours. Don't let this bother you, just do your bit to protect yourself and others.
Seek help if you need it
Sometimes is hard to take the first step and it could be that your anxiety has reached a point where you need more help. If this is the case, don't hesitate to seek it. There are lots of avenues of help available, from online resources to talking to others through to counselling services. It is not a sign of weakness to seek help - it's a sign of strength.
Take it easy and embrace this COVID world.
Tracy Smart AO
Professor, Military and Aerospace Medicine
Public Health Lead - COVID Response Office