They say it takes 30 days to make a habit, and during lockdown we’ve all developed new behaviours - some good, some bad. Now we’re free, will we continue to live like we did in lockdown? We spoke to a cognitive behavioural therapist to find out.

We’ve entered alert level 3 - or as some like to call it, level 4 with KFC. According to cognitive behavioural therapist Elizabeth Maher, overcompensating for the things we’ve missed is to be expected.

“I think we need to get some perspective,” says Elizabeth, “so for the next three days you might get KFC. As a short term thing it’s not going to cause any long lasting damage”.

So now we’ve ascertained a three-day binge on your favourite takeaway is okay, what other kind of behaviours can we expect to take with us? 

Elizabeth Maher

Behavioural therapist Elizabeth Maher

Do we have Stockholm syndrome?

Polls conducted by The AM Show and Stuff showed that the majority of New Zealanders wanted to stay in lockdown or believed we weren’t ready to move to level 3. While some may be eager to get back to business, Re: heard last week some people were actually enjoying being in lockdown.

Are we suffering from a case of Stockholm syndrome? 

“I don't think that is a term that I would use for this actually at all,” says Elizabeth. “I think that having the space to reflect on things and removal of those obligations could definitely be a reason why some of us are enjoying this.”

Elizabeth says the key difference is we’re not viewing it as being “held captive”.

“Rather than seeing it as we've been held captive, we're seeing it as: by me choosing to stay at home in my bubble, I’m I keeping my bubble safe and keeping my neighbour safe and working together with all the other bubbles in New Zealand to each play our part in keeping our communities and country safe.”

Carrying on good self-care habits

When it comes to behaviours within your bubble, self care is certainly trending.

“People are doing more exercise, yoga, and eating well,” says Elizabeth. “Maybe it’s because without all the usual noise of life we’re having a little bit of quiet space and maybe this could have been the trigger to actually think, ‘Okay, I need to actually think about my health overall’.”

She’s noticed many of her clients’ anxiety levels have decreased.

“For some people maybe they are feeling incredibly anxious, but there's other people who are actually feeling less anxious in a lockdown,” she says.

We’re all having to sit with uncertainty, she says. “It's also having the space and time to engage in some really good self care, practice your mindfulness and connect with people on social media. I think that issue of staying connected and engaged is crucial.”

For any behaviours you want to keep as we move down the levels and eventually out of lockdown, Elizabeth’s advice is simple.

“I've seen this image and it said ‘In the rush to go back to normal, think about what parts of normal you want to keep’.”

We need to figure out the things that helped us through lockdown, and identify what their value was.

“If you pin your behaviour into meaning and fulfillment for yourself, you're more likely to continue. If yoga is an example, then you might then pin it into, ‘I'm helping, I'm working towards being healthy, I'm increasing my flexibility and I'm increasing my strength’.”

Then later on after lockdown, you will have associated that habit with its value. Down the track, even if you’re tired after coming home from work, you might think “hey, in terms of what's important to me as a person, I actually would like to go,” she says.

But for a lot of New Zealanders transitioning to what used to be normal won’t be as easy as adding yoga into their routine.

“Obviously there will be a lot of people who lost their jobs and life will be really really difficult for them. That’s going to be scary for some too.”

She says it's okay to be upset, distressed or angry. “We need to be aware of our feelings and aware of all the thoughts and narratives our minds are giving us in order to be able to look at them and come up with skillful ways in dealing with them. Talk. Whether it’s friends or family or go and find a therapist. Those resources are still there.

“Do not judge yourself and don’t see yourself as inadequate or having stuffed up.”

Will we keep our protective behaviours?

The beginning of alert level 4 signalled the threat of Covid-19 in New Zealand was at its highest. As a result, we panic-bought, we became compulsive hand washers, we began washing our groceries and we (with the exception of some) accepted staying at home would be our reality.

Protective behaviours like these are linked to perceived threat, says Elizabeth. “The higher we perceive a threat, the more we will take protective behaviours.”

This might explain why it feels like hostility levels are rising, with people less forgiving when others mess up lockdown rules.

“Underlying it is fear and anxiety and uncertainty, and really struggling to know what to do with that,” says Elizabeth. “I think in some cases it’s also not being quite clear about what is allowed and what isn’t – like that one bubble that went for a walk on the beach a few weeks ago.”

Some of our behaviours will continue because they're within the context of helping us to be healthier, “which might be a value that's important to us that we've reconnected with over this time,” says Elizabeth. 

In the context of Covid-19, things like washing our hands more and staying home make sense. Though we might move out of this context, Elizabeth says there’s a reason these behaviours are forefront in our minds.

“Behaviour is linked to the current context. A behaviour that is appropriate in one context may not be appropriate in another context,” says Elizabeth. 

For example, collective behaviours like staying home are appropriate for the context of level 3 and four, but may be less appropriate if Covid-19 is successfully contained or eradicated.

“One of the other indicators for the uptake of protective behaviours is how much knowledge we have. If we have greater knowledge of what's happening and how what we're doing is impacting, it can lead to greater adoption of those precautionary behaviours.

Our behaviour may be different for a while yet. Level 3 promises more freedom in the minds of many, but the message from the Prime Minister is that our work is not finished yet, and we must stay home. 

Elizabeth’s advice for the last leg of the race is simple: find the meaning and purpose in what you’re doing. Notice anxious thoughts and feelings and respond to them with awareness, self-kindness and without judgement. Stay connected and engaged, stay informed and focus on what you can control.