Kitty Grew, 27, says that during lockdown her anxiety and agoraphobia, which she had largely managed before the pandemic, worsened.

One of the world's strictest lockdowns is lifting, but many are scared to go back to normal life

Updated 10:36 PM ET, Tue July 6, 2021

London (CNN)In May, as the United Kingdom began to emerge from one of the world's longest and most stringent lockdowns, Kitty Grew started doing dry-runs of the commute from her home in north London to her office five miles away.

Most evenings now, after logging off and closing her laptop, the 27-year-old unfolds her red Brompton bicycle, puts on her helmet and sets off down a suburban lane of terraced houses toward the city.
"I have been trying to practice, to go out every day and go a bit further and a bit further," said Grew, who works as a project manager for Britain's National Health Service, helping to organize London's Covid-19 vaccination rollout.
These practice runs, which she describes as a kind of exposure therapy, are her way of mentally preparing for a return to the office in August or September -- the date has yet to be decided.
"It's like training to run a marathon," she added.
Before the pandemic, Grew would take the bus or the London Underground to work. But during lockdown her anxiety and agoraphobia, which she had kept at bay before, worsened. Leaving home, even to walk around her neighborhood, became daunting.
The last time she went on the Tube -- now plastered with signs asking passengers to wear masks and maintain social distancing -- was in January 2020.
"When I do go out, to places that are not close to my house, I instantly feel my heart beating harder, my chest feels tight," Grew said. "I just have to get used to it."
As Britain looks to shake off the last of its coronavirus restrictions, despite an ongoing battle to contain a shape-shifting virus that continues to spin off new variants, many Britons such as Grew are finding the idea of returning to the office, taking crowded public transport or grabbing a pint with friends at a busy pub overwhelming, if not terrifying.
"A lot of my friends have sort of adjusted," said Grew. "As soon as things were unlocking they were like, 'I can't wait to go clubbing, I can't wait to go to festivals or go away.' And I'm just like, 'Oh my God, I feel anxious just to go on the bus to my work.'"
"I can't imagine getting on a plane and going to a different country, or even going to a club," said Grew, who has been seeing a therapist to work on coping mechanisms.
England was originally set to mark "freedom day" -- when the final remnants of its lengthy lockdown would end -- on June 21, but the government hit pause until July 19 amid concerns over the Delta virus variant first identified in India, also known as B.1.617.2.
The decision sparked an outcry from some corners of the population desperate to put the pandemic behind them. #ImDone trended on Twitter and British tabloids ran foreboding headlines about the future -- The Sun newspaper asked "Will we ever be free?" beneath the words "Nation's torment" on its front page.
This week, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out his plan to shift the focus away from legal requirements to personal responsibility for things such as social distancing and mask wearing.
But he also issued a stark warning that "this pandemic is far from over and it will certainly not be over by [July] 19th," explaining that Covid-19 cases are still rising across the United Kingdom. "I don't want people to feel that this is, as it were, the moment to get demob-happy, this is the end of Covid ... it is very far from the end of dealing with this virus," he said.
While many people have rushed joyfully back to restaurants, salons and shops since the first restrictions were loosened in mid-April, not everyone is relishing the move toward a full reopening.
Diners on a terrace near London's Borough Market last month. Brits have been allowed to go for a meal outdoors or indoors with up to six people or as two households since mid-May.
"We have been trained over the past 18 months that being around people and being out in the world is associated with a threat," said psychologist and author Emma Kavanagh. "Our brain is now attuned to that, so of course it's going to trigger a stress response when we expose ourselves again."
Kavanagh began researching neurological responses to extreme environments last March, when the first lockdown in Britain began, after she tested positive for Covid-19 and found herself struggling with anxiety.
"I was hysterical, I thought I couldn't survive this level of stress," she recalled. "I couldn't concentrate. I was like everyone else, I was falling apart."
While suffering from long Covid and homeschooling her children, Kavanagh took to social media to share her research into burnout, brain fog and the other surreal symptoms now synonymous with pandemic life.
Her Twitter threads quickly went viral; their subject matter is the focus of her latest book, How to be Broken, which offers insights into coping with sustained stress.
For those who fear they may never be ready to return to normal -- or whatever "new normal" comes next -- Kavanagh offers one key piece of advice: Give it time. "A significant number of people who are exposed to trauma don't just show resilience, they also show post-traumatic growth," she told CNN.
Still, some psychologists predict that the heightened levels of anxiety and depression experienced during lockdowns won't just disappear when restrictions ease.
The unprecedented stress and isolation of the pandemic could spark a "social recession" with profound and lasting impacts on our health, happiness and productivity, newly-reappointed US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has warned.
A commuter waits for a train at London Bridge Station. Laws on social distancing and mask wearing look set to be lifted later this month.
Though the long-term effects are not yet known, researchers have expressed concerns that behaviors developed during lockdowns -- compulsive hygiene habits, fear of public spaces or constant checking for Covid symptoms -- will make it difficult for some people to reenter society.
A recent study carried out by leading helpline charity Anxiety UK revealed the proportion of people looking forward to resuming normal life and those who would rather stay home was virtually the same: 36%.