Coming back from lockdown: Fear, hesitation and possibility in the journey home

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The curve of Covid transmission is slowly declining, and across the world we are taking tentative steps out of lockdown.

When lockdown first started in the UK on 21st March, You Gov data tells us that 36% of people felt scared (vs. 9% at the start of 2020). 50% felt stressed (vs. 34% at the start of 2020). Only 25% felt happy (vs. 54% at the start of 2020).

Now, facing the easing of lockdown, we see mixed reactions. One friend joked that she will be camping outside the school the day it opens. Others seem more ambivalent: 60% of Brits on May 13th were opposed to schools opening (although it’s not clear how many of these were parents of young children!).

Given the overwhelm, anxiety and fear we felt when lockdown started, it’s strange to notice that there is a reticence, now, in this turning point. Do we want to come back from lockdown? Are we ready? How do we know it’s safe? Can we trust our leaders, and each other? 

As a coach (Elle) and an expert in neuroscience and public engagement (Philippa), our work involves helping people navigate transition. We have guided people through many kinds of change: leaving a job, redundancy, bereavement, illness, retirement, launching a business, organisational restructuring. Hesitation in the face of change is something we see, often.


What is this hesitation about, really?

Whilst this hesitation might be fleeting, there’s an opportunity to turn into it and get curious. What wisdom does it hold? What can it teach us? 

Listening to the public conversation and connecting it with what we know of the journey of change, we sense there are three reasons for hesitation.

  1. Change fatigue. We’ve had to change so much to adapt to Lockdown — homeschooling, Zoom meetings, social isolation, weekly shops, queueing at the supermarket. We’ve given up things we hold dear, and learned to live in ways we could not have imagined pre-Covid. The adaptation has taken energy. But we have adapted. Now, 41% of us are happy, and only 14% scared. Easing out of lockdown means finding new routines, new workarounds, navigating new challenges and different risks. Do we really have to change again?
  2. Responsibility. We humans care about each other. A lot. We care that we are ‘responsible citizens’ — and have been encouraged to step consciously into that role these last months. Meanwhile, we’ve come to see the world as a dangerous place, where an invisible and potentially deadly virus circulates. Are we putting other people at risk by taking the bus or sending our kids back to school? What if my child unknowingly infects, and even kills, someone else? The responsibility is crushing.
  3. Reprioritising. Lockdown has taught us to value different things. Yes, it’s been hard. But there have been gifts too. More time with our children. Less time commuting. For some, time to think, to create, to garden. A new appreciation of our fierce, hungry need for the natural world. We don’t want to let these things go. And we shouldn’t.


Bringing back the gold

Are you feeling anxious as you contemplate the easing of Lockdown? Are there things you value, which you are afraid to lose?

What have you enjoyed about this time? What new practices have you started? A daily walk? PE with Joe? Cosmic yoga with your preschooler? Family meals? Family Zooms? Facetime bedtime stories with grandparents? Maybe you enjoyed a release from FOMO? Evenings at home, without social commitments?

You don’t need to leave your new habits and rhythms behind. In fact, a powerful question to ask yourself is: what do I want to bring with me from this time in lockdown?

You can bring back the gold.


A new mindset — living with uncertainty

We can bring new habits with us, and we may also bring something more fundamental. A new way of being in the world, with new orientations and priorities. A new mindset.

The pre-Covid world is gone. We are walking down the other side of a mountain, into a new world. Many people have said that when we look back with the eyes of history, there will be a Before-Covid and an After-Covid world. BC and AC.

If that is the case, what is changing in the fabric of society? And how can we participate in that?

Covid has flung us into a world of uncertainty. We find ourselves in a fluid, morally complex reality. This is a new illness. The experts are learning about it as we fight it. We can model the data to try to prepare ourselves, but ultimately we will learn through experience. Only in taking the next step can we discover its impact. That is a hard truth.

Perhaps this is another reason for our hesitation? Life in lockdown has been black and white. We know what we need to do to stay safe: stay at home. The realisation that we are living in uncertainty has been held at bay. Now we are looking out into the world, and that world is grey and murky. We are walking into uncertainty. There is no way around that.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the big mythical movie of 2020 — Frozen 2 — explores just this phenomenon. When confronted with the darkness of an unknown, unmapped reality, all we can do is the ‘Next Right Thing’. Take a step, step again, as Anna teaches us.

Lockdown has been a hard reset. Can we move forwards with a new operating system, as individuals and a society? One which acknowledges and embraces the inherent uncertainty at the heart of life. And if so, what new creativity and possibilities may we find in that uncertainty?


Dr. Philippa Bayley is an expert in brain science and public engagement, who has held positions at The University of Bristol and HP. Elle Harrison is a coach and researcher, challenging people and business to find possibility in change.


Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

We coach leaders to navigate change with confidence and calm.

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