COVID-19: Visible difference and anxiety about returning to normal

It can be hard to adjust to loosening restrictions. We share some guidance to help you manage anxiety about returning to "normal" as the pandemic eases.

As we move though the pandemic, you may feel like you are the only person who has reservations about restrictions being lifted and anxiety about returning to “normal” after coronavirus (COVID-19). Please be reassured that you aren’t.

COVID-19 and the resulting lockdowns created challenging and stressful times for many. But we also know that, for lots of people with visible differences or disfigurements, it provided a welcome relief from the feeling that people are continually judging you by the way you look.

On this page, we explore some of the ways you can manage anxiety about returning to “normal” after COVID-19.

Having mixed feelings about going back to “normal”

When restrictions are imposed, you may miss friends, colleagues, teachers and the routine of going to work or study.

However, you may also feel that it is less stressful than having to attend school or university lectures, go to work or be out in public. You be feeling safe and secure in your home, away from a sense that people are scrutinising your appearance.

What are the challenges?

There are lots of reasons why you might feel anxious about life going back to “normal”:

  • If your visible difference makes you feel shy, introverted or socially anxious, you may have enjoyed being cocooned at home. The thought of going back into the world again may feel daunting – like leaving your comfort zone. You may worry that you’ve forgotten how to meet new people or be in face-to-face social situations. It’s like a muscle you haven’t exercised in a while.
  • Living under restrictions may have rekindled memories of times when you felt less confident and more self-conscious about going outside due to your visible difference. Old anxieties may resurface and you may worry about facing these difficulties again.
  • If you experience staring, questions or comments in your day-to-day life, living under restrictions may have presented a welcome break and a relief from dealing with other people’s reactions. You may feel you’ve lost confidence in handling these situations or like you’ve lost progress or momentum with things you worked hard on.
  • If you find your visible difference affects you at school or work, you may prefer doing these remotely, with the option to turn off your camera. You may be worried at the thought of times when you might need to go to meetings or see colleagues face-to-face.
  • If life is ordinarily stressful, hectic and fast-paced, you may have relished the opportunity to slow down and refocus on what’s important. It may feel hard to think about picking up the fast pace again.
  • You may be facing additional practical or health issues in going back to “normal” life. You may be anxious about risks around commuting to work, uni or school. You may worry about having to wear a face covering – which may bring conflicting emotions for you around being “hidden” from people and your self-image. Or you may like the chance to “hide”. Or you may worry that this might impact physically on your condition.
  • You may have got used to wearing a mask or face covering in public or this may be a daily requirement of your work or study. This may cause anxieties about having to “reveal” your visible difference as face covering requirements and guidance changes. 
  • In a time when people are worrying a lot about their health, you may be anxious about being viewed as infectious in some way. Or you may worry about people’s judgements if you are exempt from wearing a face covering.
  • You may be worried as hospital appointments or treatments have been cancelled or delayed.
  • You may have been shielding and feel pressured to go back to “normal”, even though you still have concerns about your health or COVID-19.
  • You may also be feeling guilt or shame because you’ve found some enjoyment at a time during where people are suffering. This might make it harder to explain your concerns to others, leaving you feeling isolated or worried.

Your concerns are valid

These have been “unprecedented times”. Thinking about what this means can be a helpful way to make peace with how you feel.

“Unprecedented” means something that has never happened before. For better or worse, human beings are learning machines that look for patterns in events to work out how to feel and behave. This situation has presented many new circumstances – which change frequently.

There is no “right way” to respond. Some people have struggled, some people have thrived – and neither reaction is right or wrong. People face different challenges as things change. Each of us has our own experience of the situation.

What can I do?

Here are some practical, proactive things you can do to ease the challenges of going back to “normal” as COVID-19 restrictions are eased:

Take your time. You might feel pressured to “snap back to reality” as soon as restrictions are lifted. But we will be emerging into a changed world and will need to adapt. Be gentle with yourself – take each day as it comes.

Take it step-by-step. You don’t need to throw yourself back into all your pre-restriction activities and routines in one go – you can build them back up over time at a pace that feels comfortable and safe. You wouldn’t run a marathon having not left the house in many months – you’d work up to it! You can warm up in this scenario too.

Prepare in advance. It might help to think about the situations or things that worry you the most. Try writing these down or talking them through with someone. Then think about how you might plan for these. What could help you to feel better, more prepared or give you confidence? Perhaps speak to your boss, or a trusted friend, colleague or teacher in advance and make a realistic plan about returning to certain situations in a way that feels OK and manageable.

How have you coped before? It may be good to remind yourself that you have faced difficult situations before. Think about the techniques or approaches you have used in the past. Reflect on the things that help you to feel less worried. Is there anything positive you can learn from when COVID-19 restrictions were eased before? Remind yourself of your strengths and reflect on how far you have come. If you have done this before, you can do it again – and it may not take as long or be as difficult as you imagine.

Fact or opinion? Recognising that thoughts are not facts can be helpful to manage anxiety. Try taking a step back and consider if your thoughts are assumptions about what might happen rather than fact. Checking in with yourself about these thoughts may help you to recognise if your fears are well founded or not.

Take it in stages. If you’re anxious, start small. Go for a small walk to a familiar local café or park. Make some time to spend outside with a loved one. Try out going to a quieter public place at first – and take someone you trust with you for support.

“Mix and match”. Just because you’re allowed to socialise face-to-face again doesn’t mean you have to abandon other ways of connecting. There’s no reason you can’t continue to connect with loved ones online or over the phone. If you have a weekly videocall that you’ve come to cherish, there’s no need to give it up just because lockdown has ended or COVID-19 restrictions have eased.

Share your concerns with someone you trust. Talk to a friend, family-member or counsellor about your anxieties – you may find they are feeling something similar, have advice or can offer you support and understanding.

Dedicated “worry time”. If you find your anxiety taking over, try having a time set aside for “worrying”. This can help you not to worry all the time. Some people find journaling helps with this – the act of writing worries down can help to control them.

Identify what helps you to relax. Try to notice what you find relaxing – for example, reading, watching TV, listening to music or taking a bath. Many people find physical exercise helps to relax them – activities such as yoga or dance. Others find relaxation exercises or mindfulness useful. Controlling breathing can physically calm the body, which in turn can help us to feel less stressed.

Try our audio relaxation

This audio relaxation is especially designed to help people with visible differences manage some of the anxieties around the easing of lockdown:

It is hard to live in such an uncertain time with these ever-changing circumstances – going through all this if you have a visible difference or disfigurement can be even harder. Hopefully, some of these approaches help you to feel less anxious and more in control of things as life returns to “normal”.

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