America is 'closer to the beginning' of the pandemic than the end — how to emotionally cope and stay productive
For a fleeting moment this summer, it seemed like things were approaching normal. Vaccinated people got the green light to safely resume activities that were off-limits for over a year. Companies laid out plans for returning to the office. People ditched their masks.
But in a disturbing case of pandemic déjà vu, the seven-day average number of Covid cases topped 100,000 on Sunday. That's the highest it's been since February, fueled by the virus's more transmissible delta variant.
About half of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, but according to esteemed epidemiologist Larry Brilliant, that's not nearly enough to end the pandemic. In fact, the world is "closer to the beginning than we are to the end" of the pandemic, Brilliant told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Friday.
On top of the despair, depression, burnout and anxiety that come with living and working during a pandemic, many Americans are feeling angry and disappointed that the U.S. isn't closer to the finish line, Margaret Wehrenberg, psychologist and author of "Pandemic Anxiety: Fear, Stress, and Loss in Traumatic Times," tells CNBC Make it.
"It's creating a level of distrust and frustration that's really far different than it was one year ago when we didn't have a vaccine and there was anxiety," Wehrenberg says. "Now it's coupled with suspicion and anger."
Here are four strategies to help you cope with the mental toll of a worsening pandemic situation:
Let go of control
The pandemic has made many Americans realize just how much of their lives are uncontrollable. The discovery can be "pretty darn anxiety-provoking," Wehrenberg says.
There's a term for that psychological phenomenon: learned helplessness. Essentially, it means learning the hard way that no matter what you do, you can't control your environment or events. "To be hopeful, or to exert effort to move in a certain direction, only becomes punitive," explains Debra Kissen, clinical director of Light on Anxiety, a cognitive behavioral therapy treatment center in Chicago.
One solution starts by simply acknowledging the challenge, says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, who studies human happiness. Recognizing and naming your emotions can help you feel better, she explains, because it allows you to consciously prioritize behaviors that can combat negativity.
You can also take steps to influence positive situations, even when you can't fully control a scenario's outcome. With the pandemic, for example, you can choose to wear a mask indoors and avoid crowds to mitigate your risk — even if you're fully vaccinated. "Beyond that, that's the only influence you have," Wehrenberg says.
Relinquishing control in shaky times might sound terrifying for many people, and is certainly easier said than done. Kissen advises remembering that the only constant in life is change, and the pandemic has presented ample opportunities for people to get used to being "flexible, adaptive and operating in a state of uncertainty and then pivoting."
Put your emotions into perspective
Prior to delta's rampage, the freedom of post-pandemic life seemed well within reach. Perhaps your summer vacation got derailed because of delta, or maybe you had to postpone a large event like a wedding yet again. It's simultaneously disappointing and discouraging.
Those emotions are valid. One way to keep yourself from mentally or emotionally spiraling: Put them into a broader perspective.
When you're in an anxious head space, your nervous system clings to anything that could be a potential threat, Simon-Thomas says. She recommends taking a moment to notice something directly in front of you that isn't threatening, like a pet resting calmly or a houseplant that's growing nicely. It's a small action — but it can help you take a step back mentally, instead of focusing myopically on whatever's going wrong.
You can also simply ask yourself: What in my world is still right? One of Wehrenberg's favorite mantras for staying present and mindful, she says, is: "At this moment, all is well."
Scale back your social media intake
When it comes to doom-scrolling the news or social media, portion control is key. "The pandemic is not a wildfire that you have to follow evacuation notices for hour by hour," Wehrenberg says. Instead, try getting your news once a day, "preferably in the morning so you can shake it off as the day goes on."
If you find that you're always angry or upset after reading social media sites — whether it's anti-vaxxer posts on Facebook or never-ending Twitter discourses — that's a pretty clear sign that you should take a break. As Wehrenberg says: "There's no point in that."
If you struggle to wean yourself off the social media firehose, try intentionally setting some time limits. Plenty of apps and web browser plug-ins, like Freedom or Serene, can help you block yourself from using websites that tend to emotionally drain you.
Map out the lowest points of your day
Finding the energy and motivation to get through your workday might be harder now than ever. Kissen suggests charting out your mood throughout the day, so you can identify the times or situations when you tend to feel the lowest. You might discover that your afternoon slump always happens around 3 p.m. — or that you always feel most overwhelmed during the few crammed hours you have before a series of meetings.
Try mitigating those low-energy moments by doing one thing that you know will give you a boost, Kissen says. Examples include having a snack, going on a quick walk around the block, taking a 20-minute power nap or switching from sitting to standing.
You can mark those mini-breaks in your calendar, to ensure that they actually happen. And if you can't find an activity to boost your mood, Kissen says, simply talk to a friend. Even a casual conversation can help you reflect on what you're experiencing and offer creative solutions, she says.
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