It felt like only yesterday when we were tapping snooze on our smartphones, rolling over for a few more minutes of shut-eye, before finally deciding to hop into the shower to start our day. Yes, the hours ahead would likely bring many unforeseen twists and turns: a wrapped-around-the-corner coffee line, sudden flat tire, misplaced school assignment, or an unpleasant customer complaint; some of which would feel gentler on our emotional brain than others. Though for the most part, these hiccups and minor bumps in the road were fairly manageable. They were temporary problems—nothing we couldn’t resolve with a bit of determination, brainstorming, and a good night’s rest.
But … today was different. There was no way to predict what was about to flash “This Just In!” on our news app at work or be broadcast across our television screens while eating dinner. It was the day we learned of COVID-19 entering the U.S.; it was the day our lives were flipped upside down; it was the day we looked towards our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers with compassion, knowing we were in this for the long haul, together. And so, what marked the beginning of learning how to navigate life during a pandemic: learning how to survive a new “normal,” all the while knowing there was nothing at all normal about it.
Days, weeks, and soon months passed as we witnessed loved ones—and their loved ones—fall ill; some recovered and sadly, some did not. Our hearts were fragile, but toughened; our minds crawled into unknown territories desperately seeking solace; our bodies craved movement, and freedom, but remained confined to the walls of our homes. We did what we needed to in order to survive: we educated ourselves and followed the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); we sheltered indoors—only leaving for emergencies; we wore our face coverings to work, to the grocery store, and to walk the dog—through the sweat, through the tears, through hours of elastic digging into the backs of our ears. But most importantly, we looked to the future. We held on to hope. We persevered.
Still, despite our resiliency, there were days of darkness. There were days when we had trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. There were moments when our mental health struggled because of the isolation experienced during the pandemic. For many of us, these moments felt like a never-ending spread of mental dominoes and we were beginning to run out of brain space. Now, a year later, even with vaccination rates on the rise, patches of darkness may still remain. The isolation we experienced during the pandemic manifested itself in a multitude of ways; as if already knowing our greatest worries and fears and using that information to create a battlefield suitable only for our taking; flipping a switch in our minds and making it quite difficult to flip back. For others, this manifestation could have felt even more complex: causing a rewiring, hijacking even, to occur on one’s own memory and identity.
In order to alleviate some of the stress caused by the Pandemic, The CDC strongly encouraged taking breaks from listening to the news, focusing on your physical and mental health, making time for yourself to decompress, and connecting with family, friends, and your community while social distancing, utilizing social media, or by way of phone and mail. Because although we needed to follow appropriate safety measures, we needed to remain connected. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021). As we continue to explore the mental health effects resulting from the isolation experienced during the pandemic, please remember you’re not alone.
*If you are struggling to cope during these times please reach out for support and/or contact your healthcare professional. If you find yourself in a crisis: call 911 for assistance right away.
Feelings of Loneliness, Memory Loss, Shifts in Identity
When we entered “lockdown,” there was no way of knowing how long it would be for … days, weeks, months, or years? We found ourselves hanging on to every phone call with family and friends and constantly scheduling zoom calls in hopes to alleviate our longing for human connection. Graduations, 1st Birthdays, and Wedding Celebrations all looked different; no longer did we have the freedom to host this year’s block party, plan the birthday of the century for our kids, or watch our favorite couple say “I Do.” To say that we were lonely was an understatement. This was a feeling we had not experienced before; it was loneliness with no timeframe, no perimeters, and no relief. It was difficult to fill the void of missing our loved ones and just as difficult to sit alone with our thoughts.
As time moved forward and our lives remained enclosed, our minds and bodies struggled to maintain equilibrium. As a result, pieces of our memory may have dwindled, weakened, or been pushed to the back of our consciousness. With our state of consciousness changing, our identities may have shifted as well. The world we lived in, combined with our day-to-day experiences and daily routines, had all changed overnight; as a result, our wants and needs changed. We changed.
If you find yourself struggling with loneliness, self-reflection, or gaps in memory, there are a few techniques you can try. First, find a comfortable and pleasant location. You might respond well to the idea of creative journaling, documenting your days, or creating a scrapbook. You can utilize old photo albums or create a digital journey of your experiences during the pandemic. By doing so, you’ll have a creative outlet to combat loneliness and a visual tool for strengthening and maintaining your memory.
If you are visually impaired, try writing down or recording your own personal narrative: a story of the past, present, and where you see yourself in the future. If able, have someone close to you assist with the activity; you might even like to take turns sharing your narrative with one another. Press play when you’d like to listen back to your story or add new information and insights.
Increased Stress, Mood Disturbances, Heightened Emotional Responses
If you’re feeling a bit more “on edge” lately, you’re not alone. For many of us, the pandemic has induced feelings of uncertainty, irritability, anger, and sadness to surface. Often when we feel a lack of control in our lives, we find ways to cope with the disorganization as best we can: we may isolate ourselves further, lash out at those close to us, or internalize our emotions completely. We may even exhibit patterns of unusual behavior when compared to our typical, everyday behaviors, before the pandemic.
If you notice a shift in your energy or an unwelcoming feeling arise, don’t be afraid to reach out for support. When we have someone to communicate with, to talk through our emotions with, it may feel easier to release a specific feeling or redirect it. It’s also important to understand that experiencing a surplus of emotions during a time of uncertainty is common and nothing to be ashamed about. Talk to the people you are closest to and let them know how you are feeling. You may be surprised to find that they feel quite similar to you.
Changes in Appetite, Sleep Pattern, Hobbies, and Interests
The last thing we want to talk about is bodyweight— “the dreaded scale,” but it’s worth quickly mentioning. Throughout the last year, you may have noticed your body changing; whether from eating less, or more, the interruption we’ve faced from our usual appetite is hard to ignore. The same can be said for our sleep patterns and interests. The surplus of emotions experienced during a time of uncertainty, combined with fluctuating income, changing work schedules, and increased time indoors, may have contributed to a different waistline, sleep schedule, and/or level of motivation. Some of these changes may have been considered positive ones whereas others may have felt a bit more intrusive.
So, what can be done to counteract the changes we find undesirable or a hindrance to our mental health? We can start by being gentle with ourselves. Despite the number you see on the scale, or the circles forming from beneath your eyes, you are beautiful. You are living through a pandemic. You are moving through the darkness. You are surviving. The good news is: we always have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves—to be who we want to be—when we’re ready. It may be helpful to jot down a daily schedule and do your best to stick to it; eat a nutritious breakfast, lunch, and dinner; set a goal for getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night, and do at least one thing every day for you—only you.
Somatic Complaints or Worsening Mental Health Conditions
We all know how commonly used the terms “anxious,” “paranoid,” “depressed,” and/or “going crazy,” has become in mainstream society—often minimizing or inaccurately describing what many of these symptoms and conditions truly feel like. That’s why it’s vital for us to communicate with one another effectively, reach out to the appropriate support systems available, and practice mindfulness while listening to those in need. Some individuals may be feeling the onset of anxiety or depression for the first time in their lives while others may be working on maintaining their conditions with scheduled therapy sessions and/or medication. For anyone feeling distressed, there is support available.
The isolation experienced during the Pandemic can affect the mind as well as the body. Due to living in a prolonged state of uncertainty and increased isolation, you might have experienced an increase in anxiety, a reoccurrence of depression, or even a build-up of somatic complaints (headaches, back pain, gastrointestinal issues, general malaise). Referring to a “toolbox” of healthy coping mechanisms may present as a helpful way to alleviate some of the above symptoms; however, the following techniques do not replace consulting with a medical professional first. You may consider positive self-talk, journaling, mindfulness and meditation, creative expression, or engaging in exercise conducive to your environment (jogging in place, calisthenics, yoga). A good rule of thumb is to continue taking personal inventory, communicating with those close to you, and contacting your medical and/or mental health professional if at any time you notice changes in your physical and/or mental health.
Increased Substance Use, Abuse, and/or Dependency
To the individuals currently working a recovery program or who are bravely entering treatment as we speak; to those at home struggling to not pick up, to not self-medicate, and to not fall into relapse; and to anyone who has started to use substances for the first time in hopes to cope with the surplus of emotions on their plate: hang in there. Turning to a substance outside of the self for relief may seem like it’s the answer—the only answer. Often, numbing the pain feels easier than confronting it, but keep your head up. There is help available.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to talking about substance use, abuse, or addiction, start by confiding in someone you trust and asking for assistance in seeking help. Keep your faith, whatever that may look like. Know that you are worthy of love, respect, and healing. Know that you are worthy of coming out the other side. And know that you are needed here—with us. You don’t have to do this alone.
… Yesterday was different. As we wearily hang up our masks for the day and nestle into our favorite nook of the couch, we exhale. There was no way to predict the flashing of “This Just In!” on our news app at work or what was broadcast across our television screens while eating dinner on the day COVID-19 entered the U.S. But today marks a new day: the day we mark our calendars to read: vaccinated; the day we look onward, to the future—with hope, compassion, and the knowledge that there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.