Living through 2020 has had its own unique set of challenges that most of society was unprepared to handle. In the final month of the year, many of us are left with a bitter taste in our mouths about the pandemic and the year as a whole.
In late 2019, we saw a novel ailment spread domestically and then internationally in China. Its main clinical symptoms include fever, fatigue or myalgia, dry cough and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing (Morgul, Bener, Atak, Akyel, Aktas, Bhugra, Ventriglio, & Jordan, 2020). Scientists did not know how contagious this disease was, much about how it was spread, or how deadly it could be if large numbers of people were exposed. As the guidance shifted from basic hygiene and hand-washing to social distancing and quarantines, more and more people grew frustrated and compliance with recommendations went out the window.
So, what happened? And why?
COVID-19 became as much of an existential threat as it did a physical one. Those who were yet to be exposed or infected (or still are) were bombarded with messages about social distancing, exposure risks, and safety protocols to prevent the spread. We heard nonstop messages from just about every outlet possible- news, friends, family, public service announcements, social media, etc. This was not a terrorist attack that was blasted on television and then ended. This was a different type of threat- one that we knew was there and ongoing, but did not always make itself obvious. Trauma that arises from repeated, long-term exposure to highly stressful or threatening events is known as chronic trauma (Leonard, 2020). According to the American Psychological Association (APA), trauma is “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.” Any person has the potential to experience trauma when exposed to an event that they find particularly threatening or harmful (either physically or emotionally). In the COVID-19 pandemic, this happened when we were overwhelmed with messaging about the dangers of the disease and had no end or hope in sight. Our bodies responded to the threat by activating our sympathetic nervous systems (fight, flight, freeze, fawn). The problem was that we did not have much to do with that extra anxious energy.
In the short term, increased anxiety can lead to racing thoughts, excessive worrying, restlessness, feelings of impending doom, increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and difficulty sleeping. Each of these symptoms independently and collectively can lead to further, more chronic conditions such as generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. The more negative chemicals (neurotransmitters) we put into our bodies, the worse we are going to feel.
So, what can we do about it now?
Reduce isolation- Although most of us are still social distancing, making time to connect with friends and loved ones can help reduce loneliness and meet our socialization needs. David DeMarco is our resident disaster mental health specialist (DMHS) at Counseling Services of Olympia. On this topic, he states “it’s important to recognize that we are all dealing with the same things. It can be helpful to share that together.” The isolation of the pandemic forces social distancing but not mental or emotional distancing. While we may be physically isolated from friends and loved ones, we can still make efforts to connect with them in other ways such as virtually. Those around us are likely feeling isolated, as well, so reaching out can help more than just yourself.
Solution-focused methods- If you are having a difficult time with staying organized, completing tasks, or executive dysfunction, try breaking down the tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks. When we think about a task as a whole, it can be overwhelming and cause us to avoid it altogether. This creates a negative reaction that releases stress signals to our bodies. Breaking it into smaller tasks helps us accomplish larger tasks while also giving us a greater sense of industry (thus producing positive neurotransmitters) by knowing and reflecting on the smaller efforts that we make to accomplish something as a whole.
Stop doomscrolling- That is, stop or reduce absorbing information that causes negative body reactions. When we watch the same negative news stories on repeat, our mind becomes conditioned to only see the negative in the world. This sets off a negative feedback loop of bodily reactions to stress that make us feel even worse. “The word disaster condones an extreme meaning. We have to look at our terminology, not only to others but to ourselves. We have to look at what we’re reading, what we’re seeing and then ask ourselves ‘Is this helpful to my health, my mental health? It’s about how we present this information to ourselves,” DeMarco says. Each individual has their own limits and tolerance for negative media. It’s important that you find your level of comfort and only allow yourself to engage with negative information up to a certain limit. Figure out what you need to know and turn off the rest. DeMarco adds “Going down a rabbit-hole is generally not going to be helpful.”
Resiliency- The pandemic has shaken up our definition of normalcy. However, that does not mean that we no longer have control over our lives. It just means that things may look differently. Each day, set an affirmation or intention about what you can do that day to help yourself feel better. When you go to bed each night, ask yourself ‘What is something I did today that I’m proud of?’ Resiliency is not about diminishing your feelings. David DeMarco describes it as “It’s more of the idea that you really do have some control.”
Journaling- Keep a daily or weekly journal of your thoughts and feelings. “Deep disclosure improves mood, objective and subjective health, and the ability to function well,” according to the American Psychological Association. Journaling forces our brains to slow down as we reflect on what is going on internally and externally. The slower thinking allows our feelings to have space to process and catch up. If you are worried about someone reading your journal, try typing it out and then deleting, or find a phone app that offers additional privacy measures.
Prioritize your needs- It is expected that we feel differently than before the pandemic. All at once, the world tried to make adjustments its function. From that we saw tension, pushback, and a lot of ugliness from society. It makes sense that many people feel more depressed, lost, or anxious. These feelings and these growing pains do not need to be permanent and do not have to control your life. Find activities that you can do at home that bring you joy (a list of ideas can be found below). Become more rigid in your boundaries for your self-care. If you need help, reach out to a professional. We are here to support you.
Self-care activities that are social-distancing friendly:
Painting, drawing, or coloring
Baking or cooking a new meal
Writing a book
Cleaning your house
Rearranging furniture in a room of your house
Exercising at home
Video chatting with friends/family
Grooming your pets
Learning a language
Learning to play an instrument
American Psychological Association. (2003). Open up! Writing about trauma reduces stress, aids immunity. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/research/action/writing
Leonard, J. (2020). What is trauma? What to know. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/trauma#symptoms
Morgul, E., Bener, A., Atak, M., Akyel, S., Aktaş, S., Bhugra, D., Ventriglio, A., & Jordan, T. R. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic and psychological fatigue in Turkey. International Journal of Social Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1177/0020764020941889