Last week, I was on a walk in the park with a friend talking about COVID-19 (there’s not much else to discuss these days, is there?), when he said something that really resonated with me. As we discussed the implications that this virus has on mental health, he reasoned, “never have we had so much in common with each other yet felt so utterly alone at the same time.” He couldn’t be more correct. I don’t think it serves as much of a surprise to anyone, but people are struggling mentally now more than ever. Obviously, the coronavirus has awful physical implications, but the pandemic as a whole has had more effects on the mind than we even realize. While many people have found productive ways to cope with the unknown, from exercising to taking summer classes, many other people have found it increasingly difficult to make the most of these times. Certain friends of mine who I used to describe to others as the absolute epitome of happiness are now on anti-depressants. Other friends who I looked to as sources of strength now tell me about the anxiety attacks they wake up with every morning. I’m in no way saying that everyone is now mentally ill, but the majority of people I know have more bad days than ever before. I couldn’t understand why our brains weren’t just adapting like they adapt to plenty of other challenges until I read a post that said that our brains are just literally not programmed to face a situation like this one. The phrase “unprecedented times” applies to mental health issues too.
My goal in making a post like this is to break down the common mental struggles many of us have dealt with in our own unique ways to highlight why exactly many of our brains might not be feeling so hot lately. I also want this post to serve as a reference to those who might be feeling okay themselves but don’t understand why their good friend may not be acting like their old self. Most of what I say in this post will not be new information for most people, but I think breaking down the mental challenges of this pandemic all in one post will provide a new, macroscopic perspective to understanding already-known information. I also believe that being vulnerable as heck and explaining a bit about my own struggles during this pandemic will add some tangibility to the general challenges I highlight. I have very little credibility in terms of psychological expertise, but I have the insight from my own story and from the stories that people in my life have trusted me with, and for a post like this, that’s quite enough.
So let’s get into it- how did all this mental chaos begin? First, it was the sheer panic of a completely new virus. Though the nation has dealt with pandemics in the past, each one brings with it its own lovely set of risks, so the first thing we had to figure out was what these risks were and how dangerous they were. For most people, this meant waiting with a lot of uncertainty as public health experts and researchers weighed in to the current administration about their findings. We dealt with this uncertainty, trying to live our normal lives, until everything very quickly went to shit. Our brains very rapidly went into overdrive trying to process the fact that not only were we in much more danger than we anticipated, but we were also going to be stripped of our regular routines for an unknown amount of time. How the heck is the mind supposed to handle that? There are no self-help books for dealing with a national pandemic (at least there weren’t at the onset of it). High school seniors had what was supposed to be the best chapter of their lives taken away from them. College students lost important internship opportunities. Many workers either lost the divide between their home and work lives or lost their jobs completely. Those in poverty lost access to valuable resources while they faced greater risk of contracting the virus. Everyone lost the connection and community that in the past had helped them through hard times. Zoom is great and all, but sitting through a church service over zoom compared to in person just cannot be the same. For many people, the “happy place” that home used to serve as became a thing of the past, for our houses began to feel like our privileged little versions of prison. Even those lucky enough to stay home with a safe, loving family still experienced this, for lack of better words, mindfuck. After all, when has there ever been more time to stare at the ceiling overthinking everything? When has there ever been so much opportunity to butt heads with the people you normally love and miss when you get space from them? When has there ever been so much loneliness that people turn to talking to those who they normally would feel strong enough to avoid (I’m sure the rates of people reaching out to their toxic exes rose like never before). This strong desire to connect with others and escape from stress was the perfect recipe for bad decision-making, over-analyzing, and going crazy.
Moreover, I haven’t even gotten to acknowledging the constant stress that comes with worrying about the virus itself. Grocery shopping went from a rather easy, carefree activity to something that was absolutely dreaded for most people. People literally stayed home experiencing excruciating pain because they didn’t want to risk contracting Corona at the hospital. Sure, not everyone was worried 24/7 about the virus, but I think most people had the thought at the back of their heads as they went about their days, and even that small amount of constant stress was enough to chip away at the mental health of even the most stable people.
The coronavirus also is most definitely not the only difficulty we’re dealing with as a collective. From the tragic and unjust murders of Black men like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, to the police violence that ensued at protests all over America, to war in Yemen and bombings in Lebanon, the world is kinda in shambles. Most of us are lucky in that we haven’t experienced any of these tragedies directly, but even indirectly, it’s incredibly difficult for the mind to wrap itself around everything that’s happening. We’re so used to “moving on” after the media stops highlighting these events rather quickly, but lately it feels like there is more attention devoted to covering these events than ever before, and while it’s so important that we are aware and do our part in any way we can to help, the constant call to action is a huge change for most people, and the adjustment can easily add stress onto an already intense time period.
As time went on, we became more and more adjusted to life in quarantine, and just when we thought we had the hang of things, more and more counties started going into the green zone. This was when I, for lack of better words, lost my shit (more on that later). Going back to “normal” felt extremely abnormal. In a way, it felt like the world was telling anyone who struggled during the intense phases of quarantine that it was time to stop wallowing and get back to living life to the fullest. How do you do that though when you just finally got the hang of your new routine? This additional change, along with worrying about how safe public spaces really are, added yet a whole other layer to the stress the nation was feeling. These changes all happen so slow yet so fast, and just when you adapt to one, another one is thrown at you, and no one warns you about it in advance.
And here we are now with the future completely unknown, as it has been this whole time. I remember reading in one of my psych textbooks that the ego very much does not like the unknown, so it goes to the past to predict the future as it freaks out. Our past in terms of Corona was not very promising, so it makes sense that as we get closer to flu season, we are worried about what’s in store for us. Will there finally be a vaccine? Will we have a complete shut-down again? Will colleges all close for the semester? There’s so much we can’t even try to predict, and even though we can better manage the fear simply because we’ve dealt with it for so long, the fear still persists. I have my fingers and toes and every other imaginable body part crossed in hopes that these fears can somehow soon be alleviated with scientific breakthroughs. All we can really do at this point is hope, and though it’s often hard to hold onto that hope, we can’t afford to lose it.
Without throwing too much of a pity party for myself, I do want to go a bit into my story. I know I always preach vulnerability on here, but it’s hard to talk freely about something that’s still affecting you as you write about it. Nonetheless, if it can add tangibility to the points I made before, and if it can help even one person feel less alone, it’ll be worth it. Before quarantine, I was feeling the best I had felt in a long time. The previous few weeks had probably been the best ones of my whole Freshman year, and I was so happy with the way my experience at William and Mary was finally going. When we got the news that we wouldn’t be back for the rest of the semester, I was pretty bummed, but I wasn’t distraught. I was excited to have more time to study and that I would get to catch up on some family time. The first month of quarantine, I was super productive, pretty happy, etc etc etc. Then, my sweet grandma passed away after a long battle with dementia, and we couldn’t even give her a proper funeral because of Corona restrictions. Visiting her every weekend was such a strong part of my routine since I was in middle school, and to not only lose her but to lose that part of my life really threw me for a loop. I got through it though, like we all do eventually after loss, but at the same time the minimal anxiety that I’ve managed for years definitely increased in intensity. I started overanalyzing everything in my life, and around the end of May, it caused me to start experiencing really intense insomnia. When I say really intense, I mean that sometimes even strong sleeping pills wouldn’t work on me, and I’d be up the whole night. I’ve been fighting the insomnia for months now, and I’ve worked my butt off to live a normal life even after a night of no sleep. Though I’ve made a bit of progress sleep-wise, it still makes a lot of things (like blogging) a lot harder on the brain. In the middle of all of this chaos, I lost a relationship that I knew deep down was too good to be true, and even though I know now that it was definitely for the best, it wasn’t the easiest thing to go through back then. To add to the fun, like many college students out there, I really struggled with the debate of whether or not to go back to school for the fall. Needless to say, it hasn’t been an easy few months. My happy moments didn’t feel as easy and free as they used to, and my low moments made me feel more hopeless than I can put into words. I felt so guilty for feeling as low as I did while people who literally lost their spouses to Corona were able to find positivity and hope. I kept blaming solely myself for letting my thoughts get so toxic, but I kind of knew then and I really know now that the pandemic and everything surrounding it greatly intensified my issues even if it didn’t fully create some of them. Corona didn’t take my grandma, it didn’t cause my breakup, and it didn’t create my insomnia, but it indirectly impacted and contributed to each of these things. Having an outside influence to “blame” for my struggles doesn’t fix them by any means, but it reassures me that it’s normal to be struggling a little more than normal. I still am a big believer in getting up and moving instead of laying around feeling bad for yourself, but now more than ever, I’ve accepted the days in which I need to let myself binge-watch “How I Met Your Mother” while eating ice cream and crying. I love productivity and hate feeling like a complete couch potato, but on days when I haven’t slept enough the night before and can afford to give myself the time to lay around, I do it, and I hope anyone going through their own struggles is giving themself the same kind of grace. I can’t say that I’m completely out of the dark place yet, but I’m more hopeful than I’ve been in a while, and that says a lot.
I also don’t want to make it seem like it’s been complete darkness lately. I have the BEST parents and friends who supported me to no end, even when I was not easy to support. I also had an awesome internship that made me all the more passionate about pursuing a career in the criminal justice system, and I’m so thankful I had it to keep me motivated. That, along with some fun beach days, some good runs, some healing therapy, and many random little victories have added a lot of light into these last few months.
I wish I had a good set of tips to provide about how to get yourself out of a dark place during a pandemic, but it’s honestly such an individual thing. Meditation works like wonders for some people and does absolutely nothing for others. Journaling makes some people feel relieved while it makes others feel like they’re overanalyzing even more. All I’ll say is keep trying to find some kind of healthy outlet, and please never feel ashamed for getting professional help (I don’t know what I would do without it). Something will give you a touch of peace, even if it doesn’t make you feel as great as you would like to feel. This pandemic has directly and indirectly taken a whole lot from us, and it’s no surprise that finding peace feels harder than ever for a lot of us, but knowing that we aren’t alone in it and that it’s perfectly normal (though obviously not desirable) to not feel okay right now. Sadly, many of the mental health issues that intensified during these last few months might not necessarily go away when the vaccine comes around, for like I said, the pandemic didn’t create these issues in us in the first place. Still, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. All we can do is get up every dang day, wear those masks, and do everything to make that day have even the smallest touch of meaning. That’s the very little amount of control we have in this mess, but it can go a very long way.