How to combat post-lockdown anxiety as Ontario reopens

While many in Ontario can't wait to enjoy the first phase of reopening, one psychologist says post-lockdown anxiety leaves others more hesitant.

First phase of Ontario reopening brings excitement for some, anxiety for others

While many are ready for a return to patios and outdoor in-person dining, some are anxious about Ontario's reopening plan or skeptical that the pandemic is in fact winding down. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

While many in Ontario can't wait to enjoy the first phase of reopening, psychologists say a post-lockdown anxiety leaves others more hesitant.

New rules as of 12:01 a.m. on Friday allow up to 10 people to gather in backyards, while restaurant and bar patios can now serve tables of four. Groups do not have to be from the same household.

Non-essential businesses can also welcome shoppers back with up to 15 per cent of their store's capacity.

Some people have already made plans to take advantage of options to leave their home, shop and see friends, but psychologists are recognizing a lot of hesitation, especially over fears that COVID-19 could still cause another lockdown.

"Starting to do things that we haven't done for quite a while can be very anxiety-provoking," said Allison Ouimet, a psychologist and associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa.

"Some people are really very excited to get back out. But lots are anxious about … getting sick, getting other people sick, even just returning to interacting with people," Ouimet said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning.

Ouimet said anxiety is an important emotion in keeping people safe, especially during times of danger, but people also need to be aware of its harmful effect on sleep, appetite and functioning in social settings.

Allison Ouimet is a psychologist and associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Ottawa. (Cassandra Fehr)

Can I enjoy the summer?

Neil Gowe, owner of Luxe Bistro in Ottawa's ByWard Market, says he is tempering his enthusiasm, even though he feels excited to get back to in-person dining.

"I thought we were through it before. We'll see if there's a fourth wave. Hopefully not," Gowe said.

Ottawa's Rasha Ammoura hopes to enjoy this summer, but last fall's second wave still floats around in the back of her mind.

"This is what happened last year, right? Summer felt like it was going back to normal again and then … shut down. Everybody is a bit fearful of this. Especially with a new variant," said Ammoura.

She's also concerned about her seven-year-old daughter's ability to adjust, especially after her experience coming out of lockdown in the past year.

"She had anxiety going back to social life where there were groups of people, in parks or with friends. She would say, 'No, I want to stay home. I don't want to leave the house. I don't want to see anyone,'" said Ammoura.

Some people have been out enjoying the warm weather in Ottawa over the past few weekends while the lockdown was in effect. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Stephanie Plante is staying close to home this summer, saying she will continue to take pandemic precautions. 

Plante might also keep her 11-year-old son in virtual school in the fall, pointing to what happened when other countries thought their pandemic was over.

"We'll see. We're going to see what the numbers are. I'm sure you heard in the U.K. they had really good numbers and they reopened and then the numbers [went up] again," said Plante. "I'm a numbers-and-stats kind of person."

What's possible vs. what's probable

To combat post-lockdown anxiety, Ouimet recommends people differentiate what's possible from what's probable.

"Are the risks the same now as they were before? We know from public health officials that all of the vaccinations are really helping reduce that risk," said Ouimet.

"We know [case numbers have] come down quite a bit. What's the impact of doing activities outdoors versus indoors? We know transmission has been really low outdoors." 

You can also expose yourself to what's causing anxiety in "small, gradual steps," Ouimet added, such as visiting a store for a short period and picking up one thing, then evaluating how it felt.

"'How bad was my anxiety? Could I actually manage it? Did it come down over time?' Which it always does," said Ouimet.

She said people will often feel some joy in getting out and seeing others, while also having a greater sense of control over their lives.

A group sits in Ottawa's Confederation Park while distanced last fall. Some people are worried that the summer could lead to another lockdown in the fall. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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