Just as we were beginning to feel better this summer – because once again we could dine in restaurants, attend sporting events and outdoor concerts, hug friends, visit grandchildren and grandparents, and even travel – now we’ve been knocked back down by the Delta variant surge. Here we go again. Only this time it feels much worse. Why is that?
One of the worst parts of this ongoing pandemic has been the way it’s caused disconnection from so much that’s important in life: our loved ones, both near and far away; our regular social interactions within our communities; the activities and pastimes that bring us pleasure; and our ability to make plans for the future. Disconnection from what gives life meaning leads to feelings of isolation, loneliness, anger, hopelessness and despair.
The COVID-19 virus has caused illness and death for an astonishing number of Americans, and its impact on our mental health has been nearly as dire. The data are in: rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and suicidal thinking increased dramatically in 2020 as compared with previous years. According to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40% of adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in 2020 and early 2021, as compared with 10% in 2019. Young adults report even higher rates of anxiety and depressive symptoms, as much as 63% according to CDC data from June 2020. Rates of substance use/abuse and suicidal thoughts also increased significantly for all adults during this time, double among young adults.
The explanation for these data seems obvious. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were dealing with fear of a deadly virus, not even knowing how it was transmitted or how contagious it was. Then we experienced shock, numbness, and grief as case rates and death rates kept rising, as people we knew, our loved ones, or we ourselves came down with it. On top of that were the economic effects of so many jobs lost, as well as so much uncertainty about the future. Of course we were anxious and depressed, and is it any surprise that many of us sought solace in alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, including food?
Yet over the course of the past year and a half we’ve learned to cope, adjust, find creative ways to connect with people and participate in activities online. Zoom has become our lifeline. Still for most of us, that’s simply not enough. We craved physical connection, whether hugs or just being in each others’ presence. There’s a powerful feeling of joy that comes from sharing pleasurable activities in a group (see Adam Grant’s NYT article on collective effervescence).
As vaccines became available early this year, we started feeling hopeful. By this summer, most of us were fully vaccinated, so we began to resume some normal activities. We had a taste of what it felt like, and that’s when the enormity of our deprivation over the past year really hit home. The psychological effect of having something and then having it taken away is much worse than never having had it in the first place. This is one of the reasons why it feels so much worse now. We’re grieving our collective loss and trauma.
Another reason: we now know what we didn’t know at the beginning, how to stop this virus in its tracks. Vaccines, masking, and social distancing have all been proven to work. That’s why many people are angry now. This didn’t have to happen, if everyone had just done what they were supposed to do and got the vaccine, while continuing to mask up for awhile longer. Your “individual freedom” to not mask or get vaccinated has taken away my right to move freely and feel safe in my own community. Vaccine hesitancy has become the new drunk driving.
One more important reason for our current mood: nobody likes to go backward after making progress, or lose ground in a fight – psychologically it sucks. Exhibit A: Afghanistan. Exhibit B: Vietnam. In the year-long battle against the COVID-19 virus, more American lives were lost than in both of those 20-year occupations combined, but this spring we finally had effective weapons to fight back (the vaccines) and both the scientists as well as our government were telling us we were winning the war. Then suddenly this summer, we went backward. There’s a collective sense of failure. Is it any wonder we’re all in a bad mood this August?
What to do? If we look at the science of happiness, it’s all about connection, and isn’t that exactly what our experience this spring and early summer demonstrated? So the answer is clear: we must not allow this latest surge of COVID cases to send us back into isolation again. Instead we must forge ahead, fully vaccinated and masked, hand sanitizer at the ready, not being foolhardy but not giving in to fear or despair. This is the definition of courage.
We can remind ourselves that we are definitely not as bad off as we were a year ago, that progress is being made, and that sometimes taking a step back is necessary to regain our strength and balance before we plunge back into the fight. We can remember to breathe. And we can offer a wave, an elbow bump, and a big smize to each other with our eyes, because like it or not, we truly are all in this together!