Doctors told Karen P. Campbell she was cancer-free a few weeks before last year’s initial COVID-19 lockdown. But instead of going on with her life, the 48-year-old mom spent her spring and summer quarantined and scared.

And when she returned to her position at Penn Charter last fall as its Upper School Learning Specialist, she was just scared.

So, by the time Campbell received her first Moderna shot in February, she was truly relieved. Her students were no longer ticking time bombs. “When I went to get the second one, I almost cried,” said Campbell, who lives in Glenside. “I know I welled up. [And] while I was waiting the 15 minutes [before I could leave], I felt immense gratitude,” she said.

A swell of mixed emotion

The news of the developing COVID-19 vaccines brought hope. Yet it didn’t take long for a mix of other feelings to appear in the over-COVID zeitgeist: excitement for the future, frustration waiting for an appointment, and relief on receiving the jab.

There’s also cynicism as we learn the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being paused over concerns. Those who jump the vax line are dealing with guilt. Others can’t get over the nagging worry that although they qualified for the needle, there are many out there who need it more. Vaccine envy and resentment abound as those eager to get on with their lives remain in limbo.

When I went to get the second one, I almost cried.

Karen P. Campbell

On the flip side, the finally vaccinated are bubbling over with joy of the promise of a new day. Yet fear lingers in the air as we face the uncertainty of what’s yet to come.

“You can’t underestimate the emotionality of this vaccine,” said Eric Zillmer, a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. Getting the vaccine is like jumping out of an airplane, he says. “You are scared to death,” Zillmer said. “But once you jump, you’ve all of a sudden landed socially. You feel safe. The edge is off. You are elated. Then you quickly start to wonder: Should I tell people? What’s next for me? And the emotions start to shift again.”

A different kind of stress

As more states like Pennsylvania expand vaccine eligibility, more of us will find ourselves riding the COVID-19 vaccine emotional roller coaster. While this is normal, says Heather Hersh, a clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Well-Being, it’s not easy. This is especially true when you add the trauma that pandemic life has already leveled on our minds, bodies, and souls.

The vaccine decreases our feelings of distress, stress associated with trauma and loss, and it amplifies eustress, stress associated with blessings and abundance. But stress is still stress.

Heather Hersh, clinical psychologist and founder of Thrive Well-Being

“Our sympathetic nervous system — fight or flight response — hasn’t had a chance to fully recover so we are just so depleted at this point in the pandemic,” Hersh said. “We aren’t feeling productive. We aren’t feeling motivated. We are still living with ongoing stress and trauma.”

The vaccine decreases our feelings of distress, stress associated with trauma and loss, and it amplifies eustress, stress associated with blessings and abundance. “Whether you have lost a loved one or taken a dream job across the country, the stress reactions are the same,” Hersh said. “Even good stress can impact our heart rates, our sleep patterns, and it makes it hard for our parasympathetic nervous system to kick in and self-soothe us.”

» READ MORE: Our best pandemic tips: Read our most useful stories about COVID-19

‘It felt like the year from hell had ended’

Thirty-year-old Bryant Reams’ knee-jerk reaction to the vaccine was hell-to-the-no. “I didn’t want anything to do with it,” said the Center City-based Soul Cycle instructor. “I didn’t trust the government. I didn’t trust private industry. I didn’t trust the speed with which they made it.”

But then Reams, who is Black, learned that Black doctor and scientist Kizzmekia Corbett, played a huge role in developing the vaccine, and his fear turned to excitement.

And his excitement turned into relief when Reams, who has an underlying health condition, received his vaccination through the Black Doctors COVID Consortium in February. “I know COVID isn’t over, but it felt like the year from hell had ended,” Reams said.

Ambivalence, excitement, and relief aren’t uncommon, especially for Black people, said Shawn Blue, a clinical psychologist at Thomas Jefferson University and Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Black people, she said, aren’t just navigating feelings of uncertainty because of the pandemic, they are wrestling with feelings of distrust of what many see as a systemically racist health-care system. “This time of trauma, anxiety, and racial unrest is adding to an already heightened level of emotion in the Black experience,” Blue said. Families are split over the vaccine. “Some siblings are opting to get while others aren’t. How do you navigate those experiences? How do you deal with those emotions?”

The majority of my family just decided not to get it and I don’t understand it ... It’s disappointing and even a little scary to me.

Shirley Moy

Shirley Moy, 60, knows how that feels. Moy, executive director of the Lenfest North Philadelphia Work Force Initiative housed at Temple University, tried to convince her family to get the vaccine on multiple Zoom calls, only to leave those conversations feeling frustrated. “The majority of my family just decided not to get it and I don’t understand it,” Moy said. “It’s disappointing and even a little scary to me.”

Ultimately, she gave up and decided to go ahead and get the vaccine on her own. “I decided the side effects of the vaccine were a lot better than being on a respirator.”

I recognize we need it, but I also recognize there are so many other people in much more vulnerable situations and I have a lot of guilt associated with that.

Jen Lee

‘I still tear up’

Philadelphia schoolteacher Jen Lee received both doses of her COVID-19 vaccination earlier this month at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She was among the first of her friends and family — including her husband — to receive the inoculation because of her job as a schoolteacher. Still she feels bad, especially because so many people, especially the elderly, have died.

“I recognize we need it, but I also recognize there are so many other people in much more vulnerable situations and I have a lot of guilt associated with that,” said Lee, 45. As she talked, she swallowed back emotion. “I still tear up … So many lives were lost.”

‘I’m still not ready to let my guard down’

Relief and gratitude are certainly among the most common reactions. Some like Elizabeth Burkin-Kallick of Conshohocken didn’t only walk away from the jab with a sense of freedom, she appreciated how her husband spent nights scouring Rite Aid and CVS website for available appointments.

“My feelings of faith and love for my husband were amplified,” said Burkin-Kallick, 50. Still, her road to vaccination hasn’t ended in complete bliss. “I’m still not ready to let my guard down,” Burkin-Kallick said.

My feelings of faith and love for my husband were amplified.

Elizabeth Burkin-Kallick

‘I’m still anxious’

Temple University student Olivia Sarvino wholeheartedly agrees. Sarvino, 20, was vaccinated at the Liacouras Center courtesy of the Black Doctors Covid Consortium. She qualified for the vaccine because she lives in one of the city’s hardest-hit zip codes. Because she works as a salesperson at Sephora, she’s extra grateful.

“I’m still anxious. I’m still double-masking,” said Sarvino. But as lucky as she feels, she’s worried. What will her post-COVID-19 life look like? “I feel like I’ve just gotten out of jail and I’m not certain what journey my life will take,” Sarvino said. “I’ve learned so many life lessons. I just don’t want to blow it.”

I feel like I’ve just gotten out of jail

Olivia Sarvino

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