As COVID lockdown comes to an end in NSW, hibernating bears hold some lessons for readjusting to ‘normal’ life.

Clinical psychologist and CPX Fellow Leisa Aitken gives us advice on adjusting to normal life again after lockdown.

I recently learnt that bears trigger their winter hibernation by eating huge amounts of food — up to 100,000 blueberries a day. They effectively put themselves into the natural version of a diabetic coma. They have evolved to burn the excess weight efficiently in those few months, so they emerge lean and healthy.

However, in the first few weeks out of their lockdown, they go through a stage known as “walking hibernation”: they still sleep more, don’t eat much, and don’t roam very far. They naturally and sensibly ease into the transition of normal bear life — slowly.

While lockdown has been difficult in many ways, for some of us it has also been a sort of hibernation. It has been a simpler time; fewer decisions to make, fewer interactions with others, more couch time.

Post lockdown, how will we ease into our walking hibernation? We must expect it to take some adjustment. I work as a clinical psychologist, so here’s a glimpse into how I’ve been breaking it down with my clients.

We still need to put effort into coping

First, there is our psychological adjustment. Throughout lockdown, the number of people seeking treatment for stress, depression and anxiety has been immense. Like most psychologists, I am so busy that I closed my books to new clients several months ago. However, it has been good to notice that with time and support, many people now report an increasing capacity to cope.

We can’t presume that coming out of lockdown will magically erase life’s struggles.

We know we can’t presume that coming out of lockdown will magically erase life’s struggles. We will still have to put time and effort into our coping. On top of that, we will have the extra adjustment of managing the return of old expectations and responsibilities from before our hibernation.

Perhaps ask yourself these questions:

  • In the first few weeks (or months), how will I balance going out more with enough relaxation at home?
  • If I have the choice, how will I negotiate working in the office and working from home?
  • How will I adjust my budget for changes to spending patterns?
  • As I am increasingly out in the community, how will I manage my anxieties about COVID still being present? Who do I need to talk to about this?

What are your boundaries?

Second, we need to adjust to new social norms when being around others more. We have become so used to not touching each other! No hugs, handshakes, or kisses of greeting. For some this has been excruciating, but for others, a relief.

We are going to have to decide for ourselves how much we want to re-engage in this. And especially, how we are going to let others know what we are comfortable with.

I suspect it’s better to let people know early. For example, the pre-emptive “Great to see you! But I’m still just waving” is preferable to the awkward dodge when someone moves in for the hug. For those who love a good bear hug, remember that some have unseen vulnerabilities and still need to avoid physical contact. If you’re unsure, be the first to ask what others are comfortable with.

Here are some other questions you might ask yourself:

  • If I encounter people who have chosen not to be vaccinated, what is my stance on physical proximity with them?
  • How do I respectfully express this?
  • The potential sensory overload of being back among many people, with lights and noise, may feel overwhelming. Do I need to do this in stages and/or give myself permission to leave events early?

Working out what matters

Last, our self-care and spirituality may have changed in lockdown. For some, regular walking, yoga or art with an app have been healthy new activities to begin. For many, the lack of their team sport or gym routine has left a relational and exercise void (and some of us have also eaten a few too many blueberries, so it’s uncertain we will emerge “lean and healthy”).

  • What self-care rhythms do I want to continue?
  • Is this a new season to do something different for exercise or creative expression?

Many clients have told me that lockdown has been a time to reassess what is important in their lives. We’ve had to come to terms with our lack of control. Some have re-examined relationships or their purpose in life. Some have joined a community of faith or are thinking about how they can reconnect with their spirituality.

So, one last question:

  • How has lockdown impacted me in assessing what is important in my life?

While bears’ walking hibernation is seasonal, we are only just beginning to learn the art of healthy re-emergence. This may seem like a lot of questions to contemplate but preparing yourself for the upcoming adjustment will hopefully help you to ease into the experience.

After all, taking care of our whole self — psychological, physical, and spiritual — is just the price of being smarter than the average bear.

Leisa Aitken is a clinical psychologist who works on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. She is a Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in ABC News.