The pandemic will end, but the toll on mental health will take longer
At first, it was only supposed to last a few weeks. COVID-19, as we know now, was not going to be defeated so easily.
Lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing went from temporary measures to a normal part of our everyday lives.
Yes, there were warning signs. We saw it coming. But we didn’t know what we were in for.
The world watched
The city of Wuhan, China, first went into a 76-day lockdown on Jan. 23, 2020. A novel coronavirus had infiltrated the Hubei Province’s sprawling capital, which is divided by the Yangtze and Han rivers.
No one was allowed to leave. The world watched with anxiety as 56 million people were put into a mandatory lockdown. Airport, train, and bus stations were all shut down.
The city-wide quarantine failed to stop the spread. What began as a concerning outbreak in China became a global pandemic.
Over the next year-plus, 160 million people around the world would be infected with COVID-19. More than 3.5 million people would die.
Now, with the pandemic seemingly under control thanks to the development of life-saving vaccines and various levels of herd immunity, anxiety from more than a year of panic, fear, confusion, and loss remains.
“There is a normality to the fear of the pandemic, as the virus can be deadly. The challenge is whether we have developed a pattern of excessively safe behaviors that keep us anchored into the fears,” environmental psychologist and well-being consultant Lee Chambers told Medical News Today. “I expect there to be pockets of people who, even when vaccinated, will be continually worrying about (COVID-19) and be avoidant of anything that may heighten their risk.”
As infection rates decrease and lockdowns are lifted, some are choosing to remain indoors, afraid of venturing back out into the world.
Scientists are calling this phenomenon COVID-19 anxiety syndrome, which is characterized by a fear of going back to the way life was before, a combination of symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
COVID-19 anxiety syndrome sufferers are likely to compulsively check themselves for possible symptoms of COVID infection, continue to avoid public places, and clean obsessively.
Researchers, such as London South Bank University professor Marcantonio Spada, theorize that while it was normal to be cautious and even fearful during the pandemic, that anxiety will now carry over into unnecessary compulsions for many, even as the global health crisis subsides.
“Fear is normal. You and I are supposed to fear the virus because it’s dangerous. The difference, however, in terms of developing a psychopathological response is whether you end up behaving in … overly safe ways that lock you into the fear,” Spada told The Guardian. “My expectation is we’re going to have … chunks of the population that are avoiding re-engagement and constantly worrying about the virus for months to come, whether they are vaccinated or not.”
A traumatized public
It should come as no surprise that people are traumatized. Statistics from the Center for Disease Control show that around 40% of adults experienced varying degrees of anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation last summer as COVID ravaged the country.
The media, as can often be the case, was put in a tough position during the pandemic. On one hand, it was important for people to understand the seriousness of the virus, so they would be more willing to follow public health guidelines such as wearing masks and social distancing.
At the same time, the constant stream of bad news and frantic headlines left Americans traumatized and living in a constant state of terror.
This obsession with doom became a part of our everyday lives. A world filled almost entirely with trauma and death became the new normal.
“Some of the potential reasons why (COVID-19 anxiety syndrome may occur) include high levels of exposure to social media and news, disruption to routines and anchors caused by lockdowns and restrictions, and difficulties disengaging from the threatening stimuli, including (virus) variants and the situation in other countries,” Chambers told Medical News Today.
Returning to normalcy
While struggling with COVID-19 anxiety syndrome is normal and nothing to be ashamed of, there are steps one can take to help ease themselves back into everyday life, according to Chambers.
One important measure the well-being consultant suggests is to seek out and focus on positive news surrounding the pandemic’s current state, such as declining infection rates and the success of the COVID vaccines.
Chambers also suggests taking things slow and stepping out of comfort zones at a gradual pace. If a person would rather continue wearing a mask or gloves in public, they should feel free to do so until they are more comfortable.
Talking can also help. Explaining feelings of anxiety can help ease fears, and, if needed, speaking to a mental health professional can help someone cope.
Ultimately, Chambers suggests being nice to ourselves and practicing self-love, understanding that what we collectively went through was no easy task.
“It can be easy to become frustrated because everyone is on their own journey as lockdowns ease, and some people are more comfortable than others. Being kind to ourselves and others is so important to keep ourselves from becoming fearful,” Chambers told Medical News Today. “A little patience with ourselves and understanding that we are all in a different place will fuel the respect and appreciation that we all have a shared human experience we are traveling through.”
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