Returning to Normalcy: Life After CovidDec 26, 2020 03:14PM ● By John Koenig
Never has the term “Happy New Year” meant more to most of us. The pandemic has made everything more difficult, from shopping for groceries to childcare and education. Some have suffered more than others. Some have lost a family member, a job or business. But all of us have felt the effects of lockdowns, social distancing and uncertainty, and for nine months, we have individually and collectively been under heightened stress.
With the arrival of a vaccine, there is a light at the end of the tunnel; but will a vaccine shot in the arm be all it takes to get us back to normal? Besides numerous deaths that have directly touched 70 percent of Americans through family and social relationships, many Americans have experienced intense financial hardship during the pandemic. Businesses have closed, unemployment hovers around 7 percent and people have missed socializing with family and friends. Relieving stress at gyms and other exercise facilities has been taken away. Even worse, isolation and other stressors have increased domestic abuse and child abuse and neglect.
Fundamentally, we have all lived with the stressor of the unknown and the inability to confidently plan for the future. The stress of these circumstances, as well as a nationwide racial reckoning and an acrimonious election, has been a slow-burn of constant trauma. As a result, many of us—whether aware or not—have been experiencing a low-level depression and heightened anxiety for many months now.
Psychologists call it situational depression, which means it is not a pathology, but a normal response to real problems. Nonetheless, feeling “blue” and anxious is unpleasant, whether due to a chemical imbalance or constant emotional stress. The symptoms of depression include a loss of interest in activities that used to give us pleasure, a tendency to isolate and a feeling of hopelessness and fatigue. Those with a tendency toward clinical depression in the first place might be having a particularly difficult time, with reports of increased suicidal ideation and alcohol consumption over the past nine months over the prior year.
A NATION EXPERIENCING POST TRAUMATIC STRESS
Post-traumatic stress effects people in a variety of ways, none of them good:
- Relationship problems
- A tendency to isolate, even more than required
- Substance abuse
- Other destructive habits used as coping mechanisms: gambling, sex problems, overeating (the 10 “pandemic pounds” many have gained in 2020)
- Health issues such as cardiovascular problems, or even lowered immunity to illness
So, what does recovery look like? Recovery begins with the realization that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. Asking ourselves how our pandemic lifestyle is different from the way we used to live is a good place to start. Breaking unhealthy habits, whether old or new ones, will take focused attention. It is no easy thing for most people to quit smoking or cut out a binge drinking problem, reduce recreational snacking or switch back from online gaming to real world socializing. It will take effort and intentionality to restore healthy habits: getting back to the gym regularly, re-connecting with friends, scheduling nights out and eating healthy. The good news? People are resilient and there is a lot of help around. Support groups and qualified professionals abound in our state.
THE GRATITUDE ATTITUDE HABIT
One of the easiest ways to build a positive attitude is to keep a gratitude journal. Research shows that keeping a gratitude journal for 30 days can produce a measurable decrease in depression and increase in happiness. Begin by writing at least three things you are grateful for today. Make the practice a habit. This need not be more than a five-minute commitment, but it is a habit that can be life-changing and maybe make 2021 one of the best years ever.
To get started, begin by asking one of the questions below:
- What simple pleasures am I grateful for that I may take for granted (cup of coffee, warm shower, walk outside)?
- What is something I am looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over?
- What happy memory can I call to mind?
- What people in my life (or who have been in my life) am I especially grateful for?
- What trip or special place am I glad I had a chance to visit?
- What about my body or health can I be grateful for?
- What in nature, maybe right outside my window, can I appreciate with gratitude?
- What accomplishment in my life am I especially proud of?
- What possessions that make my life better (a toaster, a television, a vehicle) can I feel a moment of gratitude to have for my comfort or pleasure?
- What makes me feel safe and where do I feel safest?
- Is there an artist, author, actor or musician whose work I am grateful for?
The pandemic should soon be ending with a vaccine, and eventually we will be able take off our masks, breathe a sigh of relief and begin to build back our lives.
Note from author: Understand that genuine depression and true post-traumatic stress disorder require proper medical treatment. If your low mood persists, consider talking to your primary care doctor or finding a counselor to help you through the rough times. Medication may be beneficial at least over the short-term. And certain psychotherapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to help people recover from PTSD and depression. There should be no shame in getting a little help when you need it.
John Koenig is a board-certified hypnotist and coach who has helped Rhode Islanders deal with life stress and overcome personal challenges since 1998. He sees clients at his office in the Warwick Medical Building as well as over Zoom. For more information, call 401-374-1890, email J[email protected] or visit Possibilities.nu.