We've all been waiting for this. Ever since the entire world shut down in early 2020, we have longed for a return to "normal" so that our lives could resume as they were. We are seemingly there today – businesses are open, mask mandates lifted – and life is continuing in this new post-pandemic era.
However, the reality of returning to “normal life” has not lived up to the expectations of many of us. The impact of the pandemic and lockdown continues to affect us, most notably regarding our collective mental health and wellness. This connection between the pandemic and how you are experiencing life now is not always easy to recognize, making the difficulties of today confusing and disheartening at times.
You waited so long for this to be over; why doesn’t it feel as good as you’d imagined?!
We have all just endured unprecedented collective trauma, the impacts of which we are only beginning to understand. While the pandemic may be “over” (depending on how you define it), the aftershocks of this disaster continue to shake us.
If you are struggling right now, it could be – in part – a remnant of this unprecedented crisis from which the world is still recovering. And I'm here to tell you that though it may not always be easy to understand, the struggle of post-pandemic life is real, it makes sense, and you are not alone.
Anxiety and Depression are Spiking
According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a 25% increase in anxiety and depression symptoms worldwide. Let that sink in for a moment. Two years of stress, uncertainty, and isolation have taken their toll, creating lasting impacts on people everywhere.
The looming threat of illness or death for 2+ years has evoked anxiety for even those of us who had never experienced anxiety symptoms before. People who were previously familiar with anxiety are now experiencing new challenges as symptoms have increased in frequency and intensity. In some cases, symptoms more closely related to PTSD have developed, including panic responses to pandemic-related stressors such as exposure or contamination.
Meanwhile, the drastic lifestyle shifts of lockdown and social distancing practices have taken their toll and led to depressive symptoms for many. Prolonged social isolation has deprived us of the social support to which we have grown accustomed. Many people lost their jobs, adding financial worry to unprecedented pandemic stress. Those who maintained their employment faced shifting roles or settings, typically working from home for the first time. For some, these changes were burdensom, as they blurred boundaries between personal and professional lives and strained relationships with spouses and partners. For others, the flexibility of working from home offered a new perspective on work-life balance that is now being threatened by the return "back to normal". In either case, the drastic changes since 2020 have shifted our collective equilibrium. Simply lifting restrictions is insufficient for a return to balance.
COVID Stress Syndrome
The unique stress factors presented during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the worldwide impact of these stressors, have inspired psychologists to define the mental health impacts of the pandemic as a multi-faceted syndrome of symptoms.
COVID Stress Syndrome symptoms include fear of contamination, traumatic stress, socioeconomic distress, compulsive checking or reassurance seeking (researching infection rates and CDC guidelines), and xenophobia. These symptoms combined contribute to an emotional state that impedes the daily functioning of people compared to their prior capacity. If you’re feeling these symptoms and it seems as though you may be under the umbrella of COVID Stress Syndrome, you’re not alone and there is help available. This isn’t permanent.
Beyond the common anxiety and depression symptoms, another impact of this shift involves people's relationship with alcohol and drugs. Emotional distress and social isolation are hallmark risk factors for addiction to drugs and alcohol. Thus, substance use is a commonly reported replacement source of coping amidst the stress, boredom, and isolation of pandemic life. Increased frequency and quantity of substance use took the place of old routines. Now that restrictions are lifting, many may find it challenging to change this use pattern or recognize signs of dependency.
Check in with yourself and your loved ones if you’re noticing the typical indicators of dependence including declining social opportunities or failure to attend to responsibilities in favor of alcohol or drugs.
"Social Distancing" Becomes Isolation and Withdrawal
Reduced energy and desire to return to social activities and settings, even after social distancing restrictions have lifted, is another recurring theme of the transition into post-pandemic life.
“I spent two years waiting for the world to open up again, and now that it has, I don’t want to do many of the things I imagined when we were in lockdown.”
Despite assurances that widespread vaccination minimizes the risk of serious illness, many still face anxiety about COVID infection, which makes them uncomfortable in crowds or other social spaces. For some, prolonged isolation has manifested feelings of social anxiety that were not present before. Many describe withdrawing from relationships that were previously integral parts of their support system due to feelings of disconnection and uncertainty about these relationships after long-term distance.
Additionally, technological advances have reinforced this lifestyle of withdrawal as “the new normal,” as it provides people options to opt out of social engagement in favor of the safety and comfort of home. Video conferencing, online shopping, remote therapy, and online schools are only some of the many ways society has developed to enable a state of isolation.
The News Isn’t All Bad
I have heard many people describe the shift "back to normal" as equally disruptive as how they experienced lockdown in 2020. Humans are creatures of habit, and the unprecedented degree to which the pandemic forced us all to break from the routines of our lives has lasting impacts. Overall, these changes may have affected your sleep schedule, diet, or general outlook on the state of your life. But, the news isn’t all bad.
Although the negative consequences of COVID-19 on our collective mental health are apparent, there are some positive developments that these extraordinary circumstances have inspired.
The widespread impact of this pandemic has been a catalyst for enormous societal progress in combating the stigma against mental health support. For men, in particular, the normalization of getting help with emotional distress is evidenced by the influx in the number of men initiating therapeutic services today.
On a larger scale, the conversation about mental health has become a more frequent theme in the media. It has reached new public spheres that would have been unheard of years ago. In July, victorious UFC fighter Paddy Pimblett used his platform following a fight to share a message about suicide prevention. He urged men to seek support for symptoms of depression.
Additionally, the vast uptick in mental health symptoms and the barriers to in-person therapy provided by the COVID-19 outbreak have combined to make therapeutic support more accessible than ever before. Today, you can find remote treatment with a simple google search which provides more options to people for the type of care they receive and makes these services accessible to parts of the world where few options existed.
So, though the struggle is real, there is help out there for you! If this blog resonates with you, consider talking to someone to support you in finding a greater understanding of your own experience of post-pandemic life and discover ways to feel better.