A year and a half after the beginning of the pandemic, we are once again seeing surges in COVID-related cases, largely due to the highly contagious Delta variant.
Simultaneously, mask and safety guidelines keep changing for the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. This is leading to what some describe as mental whiplash. Just when more people were getting vaccinated and thought the pandemic was waning, it now seems like we’re returning to the same conversations from eight months ago.
“After having had a small taste of freedom and hope after a year of lockdown, the prospect of returning to that ‘confinement’ can feel especially disheartening to many,” Mirela Loftus, MD, PhD, medical director for Newport Healthcare in Connecticut, tells Verywell via email.
Since the onset of the pandemic, mental health problems have soared. In fact, a study published in June reported that serious conditions, such as depression and anxiety, more than doubled nationwide compared to rates before the pandemic.1
“The pandemic has led to a considerable amount of collective trauma, and the emotional ‘whiplash’ of returning to a stage of restrictions can trigger many of the negative feelings we experienced at the height of the pandemic,” Loftus adds.
How to Protect Your Mental Health
How can people, especially those vaccinated, remain vigilant without feeling hopeless? Considering the complex and delicate nature of this time, a few experts share tips to care for both mental and physical health right now.
Jagdish Khubchandani, PhD, MPH, professor of public health at New Mexico State University, tells Verywell via email that he advises people to stay M.I.N.D.F.U.L.:
- Maintain daily routines: Eat healthily, sleep enough, shower every day.
- Increase outdoor activities: Whether it’s biking, running, walking, or hiking, and reduce screen time.
- No to alcohol, drugs, and tobacco: These can worsen depression and anxiety symptoms.
- Don’t struggle in silence: Call someone, share your feelings, and seek help when needed.
- Find ways to help: Support others and volunteer if you can.
- Uare precious: Practice self-care and challenge negative thoughts.
- Listen to music, read books, keep moving, and go out in nature.
“Vaccinated people should not worry, but stay vigilant about the variants and potential for infections,” he adds.
Loftus echoes many of Khubchandani’s tips. Namely, she advises limiting social media, especially time spent getting lost in the scroll.
“It can be easy to fall into the social media ‘rabbit hole’ of doom-scrolling,” she says. And if your worries are especially pandemic-related, it’s best to steer clear from the alarmist headlines. Try sticking to one or two sources for pandemic-related news and guidance.
In general, Loftus adds, give yourself and others some grace. “We’ve all experienced an unprecedented amount of trauma over the past 18 months,” Lotus says. “Allow yourself to grieve the losses of your routines and identify those frustrations and negative feelings.”
One way we can do this is by evaluating our feelings on an ongoing basis. “If you find you’re still feeling incredibly anxious or hopeless, consider speaking with a professional,” Lotus adds. “Check in with friends and family as well.”
She also recommends viewing circumstances “in the moment” to assess how back-and-forth changes affect you and your family and/or community.
Taking Control Over Your Actions
If Delta variant surges and/or pandemic-related behavior in your community is provoking your anxiety, remember that there are concrete steps you can take to lower risk.
“If it makes you more comfortable to wear a mask even when it’s optional, then wear it,” Loftus says. What’s most important at that moment is your comfort, and not what other people might think of you.
In addition, Loftus advises setting boundaries with friends or family who may not be vaccinated if that makes you feel safer. Don’t be afraid to move at your own pace, inform yourself, and take ownership of your decisions as you navigate new restrictions and changing news.
“If it helps, imagine yourself in a bubble that you have control over,” she says. “Make that bubble as small or as big as your comfort allows. If your bubble can expand, then include friends, community activities (places of worship, volunteer), or activism. But don’t feel pressure. It’s ok if you don’t want to let social media or politics, for example, inside your bubble.”
It’s Not Just Up to Individuals
While we can all do our part to best manage our own mental health, institutions also have a large role to play.
“I would hope our policymakers also remain proactive,” Khubchandani says. This means making mental health care accessible through online counseling services, chat and text services, and helplines for mental health crises.
“When fear of variants and surges in cases is imminent,” he adds, these kinds of services “require a well-funded infrastructure, and governments should aid mental health promotion.”
The most surefire way to ease anxiety about surges in cases though is getting vaccinated. It’s the surest way to prevent getting, being hospitalized for, and dying from the virus.
“We will likely still be dealing with the consequences of this trauma long after the pandemic is officially deemed over—ranging from substance abuse, adolescent suicide, and general mental health issues like PTSD,” Loftus adds. “It is important to remember that we will make it through this and that if you are struggling, reach out for help.”
Article originally published on Verywell Health