I’ve hit my COVID-19 wall.
I’m over obsessively rubbing my hands in sanitizer as I move through the aisles of the grocery store. I miss getting my hair done. I really miss the yoga studio. I’m now afraid of public restrooms. And I’m incredibly nervous that at any moment, I’ll get a call from my mom telling me that my dad — who has a compromised immune system — has contracted the coronavirus. I don’t think I can take it.
I know I’m not alone.
America is having a hard time, said Dr. Olafur S. Palsson, a professor of psychology and medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Palsson has partnered with Harvard University professors to publish “The U.S. National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report.” According to the survey of 1,500 Americans published in late June, more than 90% of us are struggling emotionally as a result of the pandemic. About a quarter of Americans are so distressed, our collective mental health is becoming impacted, Palsson said. That’s about 82 million people.
Even former First Lady Michelle Obama admitted Wednesday to suffering from a low-grade depression because of the pandemic quarantine.
We might fare better if we knew how long the discomfort will last, Palsson said. Most of us budgeted enough mental strength to get us through the end of August, as we were certain the pandemic would be contained by the start of the school year. Instead, the virus continues to scourge its way through the South, and cases in and around Philadelphia continue to fluctuate. All the while the federal government can’t seem to agree on a reopening plan. That spells chaos for many in a society that defines normalcy by a predictable school schedule.
“When stress becomes chronic — meaning we are dealing with an uncomfortable situation for more than six months — the most vulnerable of us will start to crack,” Palsson said. The virus is not the only mental stressor: The economy is fragile. America is in the midst of a racial reckoning as well as likely the most contentious presidential election ever is on the horizon. Plus, the holiday season is just around the corner. How will we come together safely? “We are on the verge of a serious mental health crisis,” Palsson said.
How do we press on in the midst of uncertainty and guard our mental health? We spoke to some experts.
I’m over coronavirus and I miss my old life. Am I being a baby about this?
No. You are not.
The first thing you have to do is accept that we are going to be in this for a while, said Eric A. Zillmer, a professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University. “If you are chasing the high of your February life, you are going to set yourself up for failure,” Zillmer said Our rush to return to yesterday is part of the reason why we are seeing people engage in risky behavior. When people don’t feel like they have control, they often throw caution to the wind. “Those in denial want to survive, too,” Zillmer said. “And if fear of the coronavirus takes over their lives, they may not be able to deal with it.”
The second most important thing is to acknowledge your fatigue. “Everyone is hitting a wall now,” Zillmer said. “We have mask fatigue, caution fatigue. We are supposed to be on vacation now. It’s normal to feel sad and over it.”
How do I know if I’m hitting that wall?
You will start to feel the symptoms of depression and anxiety, Palsson said. How do you know that you’re depressed and anxious? You will notice feelings of sadness and lack of energy. “If you cannot stop worrying about things or you cannot focus on what you are doing, that is a clear symptom of stressor anxiety,” Palsson said. If you are feeling like this four out of seven days in the week, then you should seek professional help.
Many therapists and psychologists are taking appointments through virtual patient programs. If you fear a true mental health crisis is underway, call the city’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 215-685-6440. You can also call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hot Line at 800-273-8255.
I’m not sure if I hit the wall, but I sure am bored.
This is a totally normal, Palsson said. In fact, according to the emotional impact report, 74% of us reported feeling anywhere between a little bit and extremely bored during this pandemic. Boredom is a negative feeling that is driving us to act out, Palsson said, and that’s especially true for young adults who feel isolated because of a virus they can’t see, and is not as deadly to them. Instead of focusing on boredom and what you are not able to do, Palsson said, use the time to find creative ways to amuse yourself. Learn to cook and invite a few people over for a socially distanced meal. Get a bike. Take up a yoga practice. And when you feel really overwhelmed, turn to deep breathing. “If we let chronic boredom seep in and take over, we are more likely to break the rules,” Palsson said.
Another way to deal with boredom is to focus your attention on another person, said Lily A. Brown, the director of the Center of the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania. “Boredom is a self-focused emotion. You will feel so much better if you can contribute to society in a way that feels meaningful. For example, shop for neighbors. Walk dogs in a shelter or make masks for people in need.”
I’m floundering through this and I don’t feel like myself. What can I do?
It’s time for you to reset, Brown said. These five months have made it easy to get coronavirus lazy as you work in more wine and less exercise time. Put yourself back on a schedule, Brown said. And follow these lifestyle tips:
Try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day. Getting sufficient sleep is key.
Eat regular meals. You won’t be hungry and over eat.
Exercise every day. Movement helps.
Limit the amount of news you watch a day. After 20 minutes, it gets repetitive and causes anxiety and makes you more prone to political fatigue, Zillmer said.
Monitor your work hours. If you are working from home, set boundaries so that you are not constantly working around the clock.
Remain social. Sit on a friend’s stoop for lemonade. Join that virtual book club. Isolation breeds depression.
Is there a way I can prepare for the future?
None of us knows what’s around the corner. You’ve done your best. You’ve socially distanced. You wear your mask while shopping and in crowded outdoor spaces. You were careful visiting your elderly relatives. You’ve done everything you can. So until, and if, a second wave hits, all you can do is live in the moment.
“We won’t have the psychological assurance we need until we have a vaccine,” Zillmer said. “In the meantime, you’ve got to take care of yourself and your family and be OK with what is because living in the past causes depression and living in the future causes anxiety. All you really have is now.”