- The pandemic has taken a huge toll on many people's mental health across the globe. Many wrestled with the stress and anxiety that came with the first wave of lockdowns.
- As public life returns to normal, experts caution there may be a PTSD-like lingering effect for some people.
- Many people have lost a loved one or lived through extended isolation that can exacerbate underlying mental health issues.
Infections and deaths are down in several regions of the country. Vaccinations are up.
And despite concern about an uptick of COVID-19 cases in some pockets and significant vaccine hesitancy in many communities, life is gradually returning to normal.
But as people start venturing outdoors to restaurants, houses of worship, and other public gatherings, experts say that many people can expect to confront some lingering mental health effects of surviving the pandemic.
The pandemic has taken a huge toll on many people's mental health across the globe. Many wrestled with the stress and anxiety that came with the first wave of lockdowns.
Many worried about the emotional impact that the loss of loved ones would have on them and their friends and neighbors. And others found it hard to deal with the grief and isolation.
Some found it hard to deal with some other consequences of the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns, including job loss and financial insecurity.
As public life returns to normal, experts caution there may be a PTSD-like lingering effect for some people, either from the loss of loved ones, extended isolation, or the exacerbation of underlying mental health issues.
The toll of a year in lockdown
These warnings come in the wake of a new study conducted by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Census Bureau.
The study found that between Aug. 19, 2020, and Feb. 1, 2021, the number of people who experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression during the past 7 days increased from 36.4 to 41.5 percent.
Those who reported they needed but did not receive mental health counseling in the past 4 weeks increased from 9.2 to 11.7 percent.
The increased numbers were more prominent in adults between the ages of 18 and 29, and those who have less than a high school education.
“There will no doubt be an adjustment period required in order for these situations to feel comfortable again, though the length of time may vary depending on one's level of isolation during the pandemic,” said Jenna Carl, PhD, a practicing and licensed psychologist, and vice president of Clinical Development & Medical Affairs at Big Health, a digital therapeutics company.
Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, author, and senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said while some people will feel excitement, others will feel fear and hesitation as the pandemic ends.
Swart pointed out that as people start to resume normal activities, they may become fatigued.
Reopenings “will likely be accompanied by an adjustment period, which may involve lowered mood due to the stress of uncertainty and having to make decisions we are no longer used to or haven’t had to make before,” Swart said.
“This will require more effort from the brain and could lead to mental fatigue. Even the people who embrace reentry stand the chance of becoming overstimulated by changing things too quickly and then feeling burnt out,” she said.
Swart added that people may also feel elements of social anxiety or agoraphobia when they encounter crowds on public transport or in their day-to-day life.
She said that stress and change always bring a “roller coaster of shock to the system”: irritability or an inability to regulate emotions such as anger; looping negative thoughts; bargaining with yourself and others; and anxiety, depression, and then acceptance and responsibility.
“We are likely to cycle through these several times until a new normal is established and sustained,” Swart said. “This could show up (as it has in the last year) as insomnia, anxiety dreams, skin issues.”
Briony Leo, a clinical psychologist, said that for many people, heading out after such a long time at home will be “somewhat anxiety provoking.”
“Even being indoors with other people will feel strange, especially with the additional layer of awareness about breathing in others’ air and getting close,” said Leo, who is also head of coaching at Relish, a relationships app.
“If someone has felt anxious about sanitizing things and keeping COVID-safe, that isn’t going to go away immediately just because they are vaccinated,” she said. “These concerns can take a while to disappear. “
Experts say people can combat some of these lingering issues by, among other things, pacing themselves and anticipating initial anxiety.
“A good rule of thumb is to be prepared for lots of different emotions and accept them as normal,” Leo said.
“It is not usual to have been locked away for a year, so when we return to our normal lives, we’ll need a period of adjustment when things settle back in. So, make room for strong emotions, and if they are distressing or persist longer than a week or so, book in a time to speak to an understanding therapist,” she said.
“Unpacking why these feelings are there, and what purpose they serve, is a great way to get started.”