The good news: change is coming as more people get vaccinated and the world opens up. The bad news: the pandemic’s effects on our mental health might linger for a bit. Whether you got sick with COVID-19 or not.
From June 2019 to December 2020, the number of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both roughly quadrupled. And that rate was higher for women than men. It’s too early to predict how this will affect us all long-term, but data from other catastrophic events might give us a glimpse into the future. Studies of survivors from other health catastrophes (like SARS and Ebola) and disasters (like Chernobyl, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina) showed elevated rates of mental health issues, in some cases lasting for more than a decade.
All the more reason to acknowledge and assess how you’re doing — which might be changing everyday. This guide’s not a diagnostic tool (or a substitute for meeting with a medical pro), but rather a space to explore and understand how the pandemic might be impacting your mental health.
Are you nervous about the world opening up?
You’re not alone. According to the American Psychological Association, about 50% of people reported feeling anxious about in-person interactions once things return to “normal.” And Black Americans felt particularly uneasy.
Here’s a new term for you: “cave syndrome.” It describes how you might be afraid to leave your now-cozy, socially-isolated life, even if you’re fully vaccinated. We’re creatures of habit. And some of us tend to prize the familiar over the unfamiliar, and pandemic life has strangely become the familiar.
Insert awkward turtle. Everyone’s feeling a little socially weird right now. Whether you consider yourself extroverted or a homebody, we’re all rusty when it comes to socializing.
Expect newfound or exacerbated social or “reentry” anxiety. But know that it’s OK to slowly ease back into social life before you commit to cross-country flights and weddings. Here are the CDC’s current guidelines for vaccinated people to help you find some peace of mind. We’re in uncharted terrain, so you do you.
Have you felt isolated during the pandemic?
The answer to this one seems like an obvious “yes.” But some people — whether because of job loss or distance from family — have experienced more social isolation than others. No surprise here: isolation can make you feel lonely.
Loneliness and social isolation (pandemic norms) have long been associated with increased risk of mental health disorders. The repercussions can ripple through the body, too.
“Coronosomnia,” or insomnia from pandemic stress and anxiety, is also at a high.
While older people are at a higher risk of severe physical illness with COVID-19, data shows that younger people are more likely to exhibit symptoms of depression and anxiety related to the pandemic.
Try stepping outside and phoning a friend (rather than scrolling your feed). Studies have shown that Vitamin D (through sun and supplements) may help fight depression. And placing a good old fashioned phone call (no need to Zoom) can make you feel less isolated.
Were you diagnosed with anxiety or another disorder pre-pandemic?
A symptoms spike is normal right now. Life-threatening situations, like a pandemic, can put anxiety symptoms on overdrive, and patients may have to work harder to return to baseline.
Certain disorders are particularly vulnerable to the current situation. People diagnosed with OCD might especially need mental health treatment, given that symptoms often include frequent hand-washing and a fear of germs.
And here are details on exposure therapy which can help you overcome fear and anxiety from a life-altering event (see: a pandemic) with as few as eight sessions with a trained therapist.
Did you have COVID-19?
Mental health side effects may be even more pronounced for those who were diagnosed with COVID-19. One study showed that nearly 20% of COVID-19 patients developed a new mental health issue — like depression, anxiety, insomnia, or dementia — within three months of a COVID diagnosis.
COVID “long-haulers” (those who experience lingering effects of COVID-19 months after diagnosis, even if they weren’t ever hospitalized) may experience neurological side effects that, in some cases, resemble those of concussions or traumatic brain injuries. That includes brain fog, headaches, numbness, tingling, and dizziness.
A small number of COVID-19 patients have also experienced psychosis.
Now, some in the U.S. health care system are trying to take specific action to help long-term patients get better. Clinics are popping up around the country with the explicit goal of treating COVID long-haulers and studying the effects of the virus.
The “new normal” might not look like the old normal — especially when it comes to your mental health. Prioritize what works for you as we all ease back into a version of the Before Times, and don’t be afraid to seek help from a medical professional if you need it.
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