With U.S. vaccine eligibility open to people age 16 and older, many are looking forward to a post-pandemic life without masks and social distancing — visiting friends, hugging loved ones, in-person school, and so much more.
Planning for exciting changes injects much-needed hope into our daily lives. It’s tempting to solely focus on the positives, but true recovery after this trying year requires us to both re-envision the future and process the past. As we reemerge, it may be helpful to consider how our experiences over the last year could stick with us and recognize when we or our loved ones may need support.
The mental health impact of the last year — increased depression and anxiety, sleep problems, intimate partner conflicts and violence, and alcohol and substance use — will not disappear overnight.
The full impact of a major stressor typically isn’t felt until weeks or months after the initial event. The particular stressors that came along with the pandemic more closely mimic a military deployment than a onetime trauma such as a natural disaster. The prolonged stress, uncertainty, separation from loved ones, and, in many cases, trauma, kicked many of us into “survival mode.” We will need time to transition out of this high gear and to process our experiences.
And, there is the massive impact of loss. As many as five million people in the United States are estimated to have lost at least one close relative to the coronavirus and may be struggling with grief and loss. Grief often comes in waves and can take time to work through, even under typical circumstances. The profound impact of so many of us being forced to grieve in isolation, often not able to say farewell to loved ones who died alone, is as incalculable as it is heartbreaking.
And it is important that all of this stress, trauma, and grief also occurred amid racial trauma, political unrest, and other pandemic-related stressors that affected millions nationwide such as food scarcity and unemployment.
It will take our whole “village” to recover. The first step is figuring out what each of us needs to process our experiences, transition, and heal. For many, increased self-compassion as mental health challenges arise will be key. For some, professional support may be needed to help address emotional and behavioral difficulties.
If you notice any of the following changes in yourself or a loved one, consider seeking professional help:
Anger, irritability, or difficulty getting along with others.
Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much.
Mentally beating yourself up.
The good news is that there are several effective, proven treatment options for many mental health concerns. Decades of research shows that evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, consistently provide the best, fastest path back to thriving.
And telehealth options for therapy are more prevalent than ever before — one of the silver linings of the pandemic. It’s often an easy way to access the mental health support from the comfort of home.
Outside of professional support, self-care is key. If you’ve fallen into unhealthy or unhelpful habits, such as not showering or eating unhealthy foods, pick one thing you can change over the next week. Then, build on those changes one step at a time. Start small: Make sure you are getting dressed and/or getting out of the house each day. Or add fruit or veggies to your meals.
In addition, social support is one of the most important predictors of recovery after a trauma. Now is a great time to tap into your support networks, check in with friends and family by Zoom, text, phone, or in person. Propose an outdoor meet-up with colleagues or neighbors.
Above all, have grace with yourself and others. It has been a long, tough year, and it’s going to take time to reemerge and recover. We will get there, together.
Leah Blain is a licensed clinical psychologist and the clinic director of the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania. Call 844-573-3146 to learn more or to schedule an appointment.