While the ground continues to shift in the COVID-19 landscape, a lot of the news is pretty good lately!
Many folks have gotten vaccinated, cases are lower, and things are reopening. There is a narrative circulating of reuniting with family members, hugging elderly relatives for the first time in a year, and a general sense of relief that accompanies getting a vaccine shot.
But, like everything else with being a human, nothing is quite that simple.
Another common experience that people are having is an increase in anxiety and depression and even some post-traumatic symptoms as restrictions are easing. I see lots of clients and friends struggling with very rattled nervous systems and wondering what’s wrong with them.
- “I’m vaccinated, shouldn’t I feel ecstatic?”
- “My grandkids can visit me again! Why do I feel so sad?”
There are a lot of these types of questions emerging, and they’re all totally normal. What is going on?
Trauma is cumulative and not linear
First of all, our neurobiology is amazing at keeping us alive, and helping us rally our resources under perceived and real threat. But it is not rational. When our bodies and psyches have been operating under enormous threat and pressure for over a year, we’ve been in survival mode.
Often this does not allow for much emotional processing, because we just have to keep adapting, moving forward, and keeping our attention on the basics needed to make our life happen.
Now that some of that threat is lifting (for some folks) our nervous systems can start to re-calibrate.
Part of this process feels a bit like “thawing out” and it can make room for some big emotions to surface that haven’t been able to while in survival mode. If you are experiencing waves of anxiety, insomnia, or feeling like it’s hard to take pleasure in anything- you are not broken!
This is an expected and normal process. It’s very common for symptoms to emerge or worsen after the threat is lifted. It’s the same mechanism that allows you to be super calm in a moment of crisis, and then feel overwhelmed once the crisis is past. We’re experiencing that on a large, protracted scale.
Change is hard
Yes, most of the change we’re facing right now is due to a “light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel” which should be good. But, it’s still change. If you’ve settled into your new normal, despite its limitations, it is still legitimately hard to create new routines. If you’re programmed to experience certain things as dangerous (like sitting close to a friend without a mask) and suddenly you’re both vaccinated and this is safe- only your mind knows this.
Your body is still responding to being told, over and over, that you shouldn’t be doing that. Returning to the office, returning to school, engaging in social activities- these are all things we want and crave but the transition is still difficult, especially because we have to keep adjusting our behavior to new guidelines and can’t settle into a comfortable routine.
Humans like routine and predictability- it’s part of how we feel secure.
The disruption of these pandemic habits will present us with increased anxiety and challenges. It’s a contradictory experience that can be confusing to navigate.
What to do?
Mostly, know you’re not alone. Our path through the terrain of the pandemic has been rocky, and it will continue to be so probably long after the virus no longer poses an imminent threat. We have a lot to process, a lot of grief to feel, and a lot of delayed fear to digest.
It’s likely that a lot of us will feel symptoms for a while, and very likely that they’ll be more acute at first. Pay attention to these feelings and don’t dismiss them. The best response is a respectful one. We need to respect our reactions to this very traumatic chapter in our lives and the world.
We will not benefit from telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel this way because things are getting better. We will benefit from extra support, understanding and responding compassionately to our experiences.
Reach out to friends and professionals who understand this and will give you permission to emerge from the pandemic on your own timeline.
You will feel better, and you will process what you just went through but it probably won’t be as quick or simple as a shot in the arm.
About the Author
Maya Johansson is the CEO and Co-Founder of Well Clinic in San Francisco. She is also a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at Well Clinic.
“From my background in social services I came to the work of psychotherapy because I wanted to facilitate healing at deeper and more subtle levels. I conduct psychotherapy in Spanish and English.”