The Coronavirus (aka, SARSCoV2, Covid 19, Rona, etc.) has affected all our lives in one way or another. What started as a spark in a faraway land quickly spread to a transcontinental blaze consuming lives and freedoms. Maybe you were impacted by feeling the effects of the physical illness, recovered, but still have some lingering symptoms. Perhaps a friend or a family member became ill or died. Possibly you experienced financial hardship because of business or school closures. Maybe your children had to be schooled at home, and you suddenly found yourself as their teacher. Or, like others, you lost connections and relationships due to isolation requirements. But now, as the blaze begins to go out, things return to normal, and most people have recovered; unfortunately, some people continue to feel the lingering effects of the season we’ve come to know as “The Pandemic”.
When covid first became a recognized danger, many people thought it would quickly be eradicated or disappear without too much damage. We were all willing to do whatever we could to “stop the spread” to keep ourselves and others well. The measures that were put in place should have been effective, but other factors could not have been expected. Among them was that it seemed the virus was mutating, and hot spots would flare up, which kept everyone on high alert. Another issue were the ongoing mental health problems associated with the changes in society brought about by “Covid Stress”. While some of the problems were short-term, others continue to suffer from longer-term issues that require evaluation and treatment by a mental health professional.
What Is Covid Stress?
Covid-induced Stress consists of various symptoms that are brought on by ongoing thoughts or fears related to the virus:
- Fear of coming in contact with objects that may have been exposed to the Coronavirus.
- Fear of financial or social impacts of the pandemic.
- Fear of others, without a logical reason.
- Compulsive checking and seeking reassurance from others.
These symptoms have resulted in significant distress and impairment in everyday living for some. These problems are similar to those that occur after a challenging experience that may result in acute stress. However, these symptoms can be resolved through treatment.
Think of the mind being similar to a factory, and one of its jobs is to process events to become memories. Most of the time, events can be processed so a person can cope with the memory without having an adverse reaction. Sometimes, a memory is so upsetting that it can’t be simply processed. When a memory cannot be easily processed, it does not become a memory, but remains a current problem. When things happen that remind us of the original event, we get ‘triggered’ and may re-experience the previous feelings or physical sensations. People often get stuck in that state and stop learning or understanding new information related to the original crisis.
Pandemic depression can also occur as a result of lost social connections. People who have moved before or during the pandemic may find themselves in a new environment or disconnected from work friends or neighbors. Classes were canceled, clubs went online, and many became isolated from people with whom they would normally socialize. Social connections are the primary way people process day-to-day events in a way that the details are stored and can be recalled as needed. Our brains will generally remember how an event is re-told, and store the important parts of that memory. In addition to hearing ourselves retell an event, when we go out and experience things, all 5 of our senses participate in storing the memories in a physical way that online experiences cannot provide. For example, meeting friends at a restaurant, enjoying the flavors, sounds, and textures of food is very different from watching the Cooking Channel.
In addition to Covid-induced stress, there are everyday problems that have increased due to the past two years of lockdowns. Perhaps children and teens have experienced the greatest amount of change. Families who were previously busy driving their kids from one activity to another were suddenly faced with months in lockdown and kids getting their education on Zoom. This resulted in a mental health crisis that reached dangerous levels for many children.
A few recent findings:
-According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2020, emergency room visits for mental health reasons increased by 24% for ages 5 to 11 and by 31% for ages 12 to 17.
–Mental Health America (MHA) reports a 628% increase from 2019 to 2020 in youth ages 11-17 taking their online mental health screening assessment.
-According to a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation report, more than one in four high school students reported that their emotional health worsened during the pandemic, and more than one in five parents with kids ages 5 to 12 reported that their children’s mental or emotional health worsened during the pandemic.
Treatment for Covid Stress
Treatment for covid stress means exposing ourselves to thinking about the event to continue to process the feelings associated with the adverse events. This means not avoiding events but instead engaging in activities and situations that will help reduce fear in the long term. If you have lingering physical symptoms, consult with your healthcare provider and learn the best strategy for you. Next, gain an understanding of how to pace yourself so that you can increase activities incrementally.
If you are worried about exposure to the virus, learn the facts about how diseases are transmitted and what has been disproven. In other words, educate yourself to obtain the confidence to provide yourself with peace of mind. Before you wipe down doorknobs and groceries, ask yourself, “Is this necessary? Does the science support this?” It may be helpful to talk to a mental health professional to assess these thoughts or behaviors.
Strategies for Dealing with Covid Stress
Although the pandemic has its terrible outcomes, we can find some wonderful things that have occurred during the past two years. We realize that if we only focus on sad things, we will miss the positive things that occurred simultaneously. For example, being on lockdown gave families more time to spend together. Being home gave us more opportunity to learn new skills, try out some recipes, or consider the value of friends and family that we didn’t get to see during the pandemic.
How should we move forward to heal our children, restore relationships, and begin flourishing again? The answer is to practice those skills that build resilience and bounce back even stronger.
Here are four suggestions from the American Psychological Association’s recommendations for overcoming tragedy.
- Learn to challenge negative thoughts and actively look for another perspective on the situation. We realize that situations are not “all or nothing”, but often may be viewed in multiple ways. We can choose to focus on the negative aspects, or look for the positive side of a situation.
- Build resilience by practicing relaxation or something that helps you feel calm and peaceful. Many people turn to prayer, meditation, yoga, or a good workout at the gym (yes, they are finally open again). Whatever you’re drawn to, do it with your whole mind focused on just that activity, and let go of all other thoughts and concerns while you’re participating.
- Work on your social network and build connections in your community. Find others with similar interests and share face-to-face time with old friends or family. Think about what is important to you, what your values are, and look for others who have those same values. Invite someone over for dinner or meet up for a cup of coffee. Do something for another person just to be nice, not expecting anything in return.
- Set a goal, calculate the steps needed, and go for it. Give yourself a pep talk and remind yourself of things that you accomplished in the past. Ask yourself, “what have I missed during the pandemic and start enjoying this again? Consider whether you have the resources to accomplish your goal, and plan a time to get it done.
The pandemic also brought some outcomes that we cannot change, including the grief and sense of loss we feel. There was a terrible loss of life. As a culture, we will need time to grieve and eventually heal from this tragedy. This may also require time with a grief counselor or joining a group of others who’ve had a similar experience.
Although the pandemic took place and caught everyone by surprise, we don’t have to get stuck with that event overshadowing our future. We can regain some things we had to set aside during the past two years, whether it was a financial loss or time that we would have preferred to spend differently. We don’t have to be afraid of others or our environment, but instead, we can celebrate the new adventures we have in front of us.