Aug. 19, 2021 -- Thanks to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, more than just flowers were blooming this past spring. People came out of lockdown like bears emerging from hibernation, making plans to reunite with friends and loved ones they hadn’t seen in months. But with the tremendous surge in cases brought by the Delta variant, this summer has been anything but sunny and carefree. Case counts have once more reached pre-vaccination levels. In a repeat of last summer, people are canceling travel plans, and the leadup to the new school year has become fraught and stressful.
“This whiplash is causing people to feel a variety of emotions: disappointment, uncertainty, anxiety, possibly anger and frustration,” says Vaile Wright, Ph.D., senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association. “When it seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel and we have the tools to overcome [the virus] and we’re not really using them, it can be hard for people to understand.”
The Importance of Hope
For decades, researchers have been digging into the crucial role hopefulness plays in mental health. The vaccine rollout, earlier than anticipated, provided a much needed burst of hope after months of bad news.
“It was a feeling of almost euphoria in June: ‘We’re going to see everybody!’” says Rachel Goldenberg, a rabbi in Jackson Heights, NY. “We have a theme for our High Holidays, and this year’s is very hopeful: Sow in tears, reap in joy. It felt like the sowing in tears part was behind us, and we were looking forward to reaping in joy. Slowly but surely, with Delta, everything has turned upside down.”
For Roxanne Hawn, a writer in Golden, CO, vaccination offered a glimpse of something like normal life.
“I wore cute clothes. I stopped and got takeout for lunch. I bought myself flowers. I even had a little uplifting soundtrack for that time of hope and relief,” she says. “With the Delta variant, it feels like that window of normalcy closed quickly.”
Having that little bit of hope dashed can wear down even the sturdiest spirits, says Marissa King, PhD, author of Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection.
“There was a moment when we were able to reconnect, to experience joy and the hope of being able to revitalize relationships,” she says. “The loss of that hope and the fear of being isolated again is causing so much distress.”
A New Kind of Loneliness
When the pandemic started, mom of three Julie Schwietert Collazo formed a WhatsApp group with several friends who were taking lockdown seriously. They got each other through months of isolation and celebrated the idea of reopening. Then Collazo’s oldest got COVID, just 5 weeks before her 12th birthday, and their family went back into quarantine. Her moms’ group is no longer on the same page about precautions.
“Last year we were doing it together, and it made it feel a bit easier,” she says. “As things started to normalize, everybody started thinking and moving in different directions. It feels like we’re not working through the same issues collectively like before.”
King says the feeling Collazo describes is quite common these days.
“A profound sense of loneliness comes from feeling like you’re the only one,” she says. “There’s such disagreement about the best path forward, it can feel lonely just because you think differently.”
An Epidemic of Anxiety
As the Delta variant drives case numbers back up again, worries increase as well.
“Is this ever going to end?” asks Collazo. “Is this our new reality, constantly having to order our lives around COVID?”
This uneasiness affects our well-being.
The National Center for Health Statistics and the Census Bureau have monitored the nation’s mental health via the ongoing Household Pulse Survey during the pandemic. It asks participants about their symptoms of either anxiety or depression. Throughout, more people have reported feeling anxious than depressed.
Anxiety peaked around Thanksgiving and Christmas, with nearly 38% of people reporting symptoms. The first vaccines began to roll out around that time, and anxiety levels steadily went down through the spring and early summer, dipping below 25% in late June. But those numbers have begun to creep back up -- the most recent data, which goes through Aug. 2, found 27% of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety.
“Nervous is the new normal,” says Vivian Pender, MD, president of the American Psychiatric Association. “Uncertainty makes people feel anxious.”
Empathy vs. Anger
The way politics play into basic measures like mask-wearing and vaccination adds its own layer of stress. Physical altercations have resulted: In Los Angeles, a participant was stabbed at an anti-vaccination protest. At an Austin, TX, elementary school, angry parents physically and verbally assaulted teachers who wore masks. Things have gotten so heated, the Department of Homeland Security issued a National Terrorism Advisory System bulletin last week. It warns that extremists could use new COVID-driven public health restrictions as an excuse to commit domestic terrorism.
Anger goes in the opposite direction, too, with people who’ve been following recommended procedures becoming increasingly fed up with those who flout them. Those intense emotions may not lead to violence, but they do make it harder for us to feel secure.
“It’s a public health crisis, and it’s turned into something different. When we get into us/them situations, we start to lose empathy. Empathy is important to identify solutions and work together as a community,” says Wright. “That’s what sparks the anger, the sense of ‘You aren’t doing what you’re supposed to be doing.’”
How to Cope
Loneliness, anxiety, and anger may be swirling all around you right now. But that doesn’t make you powerless to boost your mental health. These suggestions may help:
- Trust your gut. If your community is reopening faster than feels comfortable to you, do whatever makes your family feel safe. “Ask yourself how you’re feeling, and use your feelings to guide your decisions,” says Pender. “Get more information, then follow the science.”
- Stop judging yourself. If you’re feeling lonely or mourning the losses COVID has brought, don’t fight it, says Wright. “Let it be an emotion that comes and goes, and try to find ways to feel connected to other people.”
- Practice self-care. It may sound simplistic, but eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting a good night’s sleep can all contribute to a more positive outlook.
- Try to ease anxiety. Meditation, calming self-talk, and soothing music can all lift your spirits. Or try diaphragmatic breathing: Breathe in for 5 seconds, hold for 2, and breathe out for 5. Even squeezing a stress ball can give you a tangible sense of relief.
- Take action. Both Rabbi Goldenberg and Collazo, who runs a nonprofit that works to reunite immigrant families, say helping their community helps them feel better. “To sing and lead Shabbat services, even on Zoom, to see the faces of my people, it’s very healing,” says Goldenberg. One small thing you can do: If you have family or friends who are hesitant about vaccination, Wright suggests having gentle conversations to convince them. “You can be way more influential than a celebrity,” she says.
- Remember you’re not alone. Whether you’re physically isolated from others or just feel like nobody else is following the same protocols as you, there are ways to feel connected. “Reach out to people you’ve been close with in the past, but you may have lost touch,” says King. “It gives you an opportunity to rekindle joy. Particularly in this moment, when a lot of people are so afraid, it’s easier to reach out to those you already know than try to meet new people.” King’s research has found it takes as few as two close connections to make people feel supported.
- Stay in the present. Instead of stressing over what’s already happened or worrying about what might still come, just think about today. “We’ve learned a lot about the coronavirus, and we’re still learning more,” says Wright. “We don’t know what the future looks like, but it won’t be like this forever.”