The coronavirus pandemic sparked a climate of anxiety leading many to experience feelings of powerlessness, uncertainly and loss. As lockdowns were enforced and COVID-19 fears intensified, the physical and emotional effects of heightened stress caused many to grow increasingly fatigued, lose motivation and have more intense reactions to frustrations.
During these unprecedented circumstances, we gave others and ourselves permission to be struggling and we were “all in this together.” With lockdowns now in the rearview mirror and COVID-19 curves flattening, efforts to embrace a new normal are in full swing. However, mental health professionals are seeing a spike in calls with many clients reporting great sorrow over what has been lost and anticipatory anxiety about what the future holds.
Further amplifying current mental health difficulties is the unfounded belief that people should no longer be struggling since we are “returning to normal.” Mental health experts have been preparing for a rise in mental health problems due to COVID-19. A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation supports these preparation efforts, as it revealed 45% of U.S. adults have had their mental health affected by COVID-19. Additionally, with unemployment rates skyrocketing and job stability at an all-time low, experts fear that without increased mental health programing, suicide and substance overdose rates will surely rise.
The recent spike in calls for assistance can be partially attributed to the financial and lifestyle effects of COVID-19 now being felt due to supplemental unemployment and loan deferment programs ending. Furthermore, unlike the days of lockdown when we were “all in this together” people are facing these new circumstances mostly on their own. Additionally, recent calls for help are coming from those who managed well throughout the pandemic but are now grappling with seemingly small stressors. Mental health trauma experts are not surprised by this, as they understand the effect of chronic stress tends to emerge gradually over time as emotional coping systems become overloaded.
Although COVID-19 has put unforeseen pressure on all of us, we can boost our psychological resilience to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 stress. By choosing to make self-care an essential daily task and adopting a positive mindset, the effects of COVID-19 adversity can be kept at bay. Try incorporating the below wellness tips into your daily life to help you reduce the impact of COVID-19 stress and adjust more easily to the new normal.
1. Recognize it is natural to experience feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and loss even though we are moving towards normalcy. Accept you may react to these feelings by being more tired, not concentrating as well or feeling more frustrated than usual. Understand these feelings and reactions are normal; they are normal reactions to abnormal circumstances that do not make us weak but rather make us human.
2. Be gentle with yourself and others as we have all been through a lot over the past months and are still facing extreme stress. Because of the stress you are experiencing, you may have days when you are not your best self; work to accept that not always being your best self is okay. Likewise, recognize others may not be their best self during these stressful times either.
3. Give yourself permission to honor all your losses without allowing yourself to think, “Others have it worse.” It is okay to be sad you missed a planned vacation or be upset your gym is still closed even though others may still not be able to have their nonessential surgery. Honoring your losses does not mean you are discounting others’ difficulties, honoring your losses simply means you are allowing yourself to heal by feeling your feelings.
4. Practice gratitude, as we can still be grateful while honoring our losses. Practicing gratitude is more than just generally feeling grateful; practicing gratitude involves actively focusing on, savoring, and speaking about the good things that are happening. So, see if you can spend more time focusing on what is going well and less time on what is missing and look for the goodness in the world such as neighbors banding together to support each other.
5. Learn to recognize when you are expending energy on things you cannot control, then work to let go of your losses and things you cannot change. When we stop fighting what we cannot control we encounter less frustration and have more strength to put towards actions that will keep us well.
6. Focus on using the self-care methods that work best for you and do not compare how you are coping with how others are coping. Additionally, focus on meeting your basic needs first such as getting adequate rest, physical activity and remaining connected before tackling larger self-care goals. If you struggle with making self-care a priority, consider that well-balanced self-care makes you a better parent, caregiver, employee & friend.
7. Make room for a regular daily relaxation, even if it is just for a couple minutes at a time, such as practicing deep breathing, focusing on a meditation, or listening to your favorite piece of music undisturbed. Regular relaxation is especially important during periods of high stress as it calms the brain’s anxiety center and halts the body’s stress response.
8. Reach out to your supports and share how you feel. Having a safe place to process your feelings is key to maintaining psychological wellbeing. Seek help from a mental health professional to manage any anxiety or sadness interfering with your work or home life.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has substantially raised stress levels, humans have a naturally resilient nature and can harness this innate ability to rise above adversity. Prioritizing self-care and establishing healthy psychological habits can reduce negative stress reactions and help us more easily adjust to the post-COVID-19 normal.
Theresa Wray, MSW LCSW LCADC, is a licensed clinical social worker and mental health therapist in southern New Jersey, and an organizational wellness trainer specializing in building workforce resilience. Wray can be reached at TheresaWray@comcast.net