After two years of the pandemic in Victoria, the Victorian Government has eased restrictions and taken a more hands-off approach to managing COVID-19, and how we live with it.

It can be exciting and fun to be able to see lots of friends again, to go to big events, or even travel outside Victoria. But this can also be tricky when everyone feels differently about how they want to live with COVID. We’re all weighing up our own needs, responsibilities, health situations and what COVID risks we’re comfortable with. This can lead to worry, stress or anxiety around decision-making about going out.

You might also be feeling the impacts of long lockdowns, and fear of the unknown; with less government guidance, you don’t know who’s going where or doing what.

This mix of emotions totally makes sense! Here’s some advice, including tips from mental health nurse Deb Penglase (she/her) from The Wish Group, about how to navigate these situations and manage your feelings about them.

“Living with COVID is not pretending the pandemic is over.”

–Mental health nurse Deb Penglase

Managing your feelings

We often feel anxious about things that are out of our control (which is many things in the pandemic!) but that doesn’t mean you don’t have the skills or ability to cope.

Get informed – knowledge can be empowering. Look at reliable sources of information for COVID updates, and talk to a health professional you trust for COVID-safety advice that suits your individual needs.

If you find this makes you feel overwhelmed, try some techniques like moderating how much time you spend reading the news, or even having certain days that you don’t check it at all. If you have friends who feel similarly, you could try taking turns checking the COVID updates for the day. That way, you can have a break from media but still feel confident that you’ll hear about anything essential.

Close up of a hand writing a list in a notebook

Try to focus on what is in your control, and acknowledge that there’s still a lot of uncertainty. “At the moment we feel like Getting back out and about into society.reintegration is such a challenge, but we feel like we’ve just got to [do it],” says Deb. “You might be thinking ‘I need to step back into ‘normal’,’ but what does that even mean?”

A technique that can help is making a list of things you want or need to start doing again. Then, rank them by how much stress or anxiety they cause you. Reflect on what you’re willing to be uncertain about and what feels like a no-go. This process helps you see what you want to ease your way back into, what you want to work up to, and what you don’t feel comfortable with.

Many people have talked about the unexpected positive of lockdowns showing us what we actually want to do, and what we were glad to not do anymore. That is still relevant out of lockdown. Deb also describes how “just because you’re breaking everything down into a list, doesn’t mean you have to do it all. If you don’t want to, that’s okay too – unless it’s something you really have to do, then we work through it. Lists can help you see what you don’t need to do too.”

Break down more stressful or anxiety-inducing activities into smaller steps and gently start testing what you feel comfortable with. For example, if you’d like to return to eating out, but it makes you nervous, try eating outdoors at a restaurant on a weeknight when it’s less crowded. Take it step by step and check in with yourself – and remember, if something feels like it’s crossing a boundary, you don’t have to keep going. It’s never too far along to decide you don’t want to do something anymore – we have more advice on that below.

Notice how planning something you haven’t done in a while makes you think and feel. For example, if you find yourself planning for the worst-case scenario, why is that? Is it because of a genuine threat or is it because you’re feeling anxious?

Two young people outside a cafe with coffees

You don’t have to go it alone. If there’s an activity you really want to ease back into but it feels too hard, talk to someone you trust who might be able to do it with you or give you advice. This could be a friend or family member, a colleague, a cultural or faith leader, a school counsellor or a mental health professional.

Reward yourself for milestones! It’s important to notice what made you feel good or brave. Facing fears can also be tiring, so let yourself rest afterwards if you need to. Be kind to yourself, and extend that to others too.

Be aware of what’s unhelpful –for example, too much googling or talking to people who only focus on the negatives. Remember that just because you are having a negative or anxious thought, that does not mean it’s true. You might like to try techniques like thought challenging to work out assess if your level of anxiety about something is equal to the actual level of risk to you. There are resources to do this on your own, or you might like the help of a professional (see below).

It can also be upsetting or confronting to see people who are completely disregarding COVID-safety on social media. Consider ‘muting’ or even unfollowing these people.

A lot of people have found that the pandemic has reduced their resilience, and in turn increased their health anxiety or tendency to Always expecting the worst or jumping to conclusions.catastrophise. There are several resources that can help you with resilience and ‘mental fitness’:

  • YACVic has both general and COVID-specific self-care resources
  • Healthy Mind - an online Easy Read tool for disabled people. 
  • BITE BACK - an app for 12 to 18-year-olds (with a focus on people aged between 13 and 16). 
  • iBobbly - an app for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 15 years and over.
  • HeadGear - a mental fitness app for men
  • Several youth organisations run support groups for young people with different experiences.

In public: venues and events

Public venues and events don’t have many restrictions anymore. However, all workplaces are still required to have a COVID-safe plan for their staffCheck out their COVID-safe policy – it might be publicly available on their website, or you can give them a call or email them to ask a few questions.

Deb suggests you think about multiple ‘layers’ of COVID-safety that you can do too. No single COVID-safe measure is 100% effective on its own, but layering several together can help you feel better about going out. These could include a mix of vaccination (including a booster), doing a rapid antigen test (RAT) before you go out, wearing a mask, using hand sanitiser, social distancing, or being in area of the venue where you feel safe (for example, somewhere well ventilated or less crowded).

Two young people standing together wearing masks and smiling

“If you’re choosing to go to a public event, try and get as much information as possible beforehand,” says Deb. “Also talk to your friends before you go. Work out together what you’ll do if you turn up and the COVID-safe plan isn’t in practice.”

That might include thinking about different venues nearby you could try going to instead just in case, but you should also be prepared for your friends to have different perspectives.

It can feel tricky to go in a different direction from your group when everyone’s doing something you don’t feel comfortable with – but it’s easier for everyone to manage it if you’ve discussed it together beforehand. Deb’s advice is to start with saying, “If we turn up and I don’t feel comfortable, I will need to do [whatever you need to do].” Then, open up a discussion about whether they will or won’t do that with you.

It’s okay if your friends have different perspectives and don’t want to handle things the same way as you – it’s a normal part of friendships and hopefully everyone will understand that. The important thing is that you know beforehand what you’re agreeing to. That way if you turn up and decide you want to suggest doing something differently (for example, moving to a less crowded area) or even leave, you know there were shared expectations and it’s okay for everyone.

In private: catching up and parties

If you’ve worked out what your COVID safety boundaries are, small catch-ups with friends can be easier to judge case-by-case and so tend to feel more safe.

Bigger catch-ups, like a birthday party of a friend where you don’t know a lot of the people, can feel more nerve-wracking. At-home events don’t have COVID-safe plans and it can feel hard to judge even if you really want to go. You can have a little COVID-safe plan of your own – it could just be a mental checklist you refer to. Again, Deb advises thinking about multiple layers of COVID-safety.

Deb also suggests approaching these events the same way you would any other where it’s possible there might be people there doing things you don’t feel comfortable with.

“Think to yourself, ‘if I run through my COVID-safe plan of my own, can I do those things that make me comfortable or can I not? Can I still be here but keep myself safe and feel okay to do that, or can I not?’ Also, pre-plan – talk to your friends beforehand [just like you can for public events].”

How to set boundaries and say no

You might have friends or family that you want to catch up with, but you might disagree on COVID-safety.

If they’re on a different page, but you want to come to an agreement

Some people will only be frustrating to talk to, but some people might be worth working through on this because the person is important to you. You can actually think about these conversations as a caring act – you wouldn’t put in the effort of a tricky conversation if the relationship wasn’t worth it to you. There are some tips in our vaccine conversations guide that also work for COVID-safety discussions.

You ultimately can’t control someone else’s actions, but there might be some uncertainties you’re okay with and can come to an agreement about. For example, you might say, “I feel a bit nervous about you going to a music festival next weekend, but I still would love to see you sometime soon.” Then you can ask them to meet you halfway – for example, “could we catch up a week after you get back from the festival, and would you mind doing a RAT before we catch up?”

Two young people wearing masks are elbow bumping and smiling

How to say no

Saying no to something that feels unsafe, crosses a boundary or just doesn’t feel worth the risk is an important part of taking care of yourself. That said, saying no can be easier said than done, especially in social situations. Here are some of Deb’s tips to help you say no in a way that is respectful but still firm in your boundaries.

  • ‘No’ doesn’t have to be negative. For example, you might say, “it’s great to hear from you” or “thank you for thinking of me.”
  • Don’t give heaps of details – this can be mistaken as opening it up for discussion or debate. This doesn’t mean you have to be secretive or can’t be open to chatting about COVID-safety if you want to, but while you’re affirming a boundary is not usually the time to do that. For example, a polite but firm explanation could be, “I don’t feel up to doing that right now because of COVID.”
  • Do be honest; don’t be personal. Don’t automatically be accusing or shaming. Everyone is trying to balance their own needs, responsibilities and what COVID risks they feel comfortable with. That doesn’t mean you can’t be honest though; safety-related language is always good to bring up, for example, “this is just what I need to do to keep myself safe.”
  • Suggest an alternative if you are still interested in hanging out. For example, you may be happy to catch up in person, but not at the venue they’ve suggested, or you might like to do a virtual hang-out.

Putting all these tips together could sound like:

“Thanks for thinking of me! I don’t feel up to doing that right now because of COVID, which is just what I need to do to keep myself safe. But I would love catch up outdoors instead – maybe we could go for a walk at the park?”

You’ve got this!

“People want to switch off and act like it’s over,” Deb says, “and to a degree we do have to live with it. But living with COVID is not pretending the pandemic is over, so safety is still important.”

While there’s been a lot about COVID that has been new, there are also many aspects that are always just part of life – like setting boundaries, learning to navigate situations that make you uncomfortable, and working out what feels safe to you. It will always be worthwhile to prioritise and get better at these things that are all ways to take care of yourself.

Young person smiling2

Last update: 24 May 2022.

Additional sources

Black Dog Institute, ‘10 tips for managing anxiety during COVID-19’.

Gabrielle Avery-Peck, Anxiety & Depression Association of America, ‘How to Manage Post-Covid Anxiety’, 11 May 2021.

Katie McCallum, Houston Methodist, ‘It’s Okay to Say “No” to Social Gatherings During COVID-19 — Here’s How to Do It Politely’, 16 July 2020.

Media Release from The Hon Martin Foley MP, ‘High Vax Rate Means Most Restrictions Can Safely Ease’, 20 April 2022.

Sarah Jacoby, 7News, ‘How to manage health anxiety and ease back into ‘normal’ living post COVID’, 27 March 2022.