The mental health aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic is different for everyone. Whether you lost a loved one, were a front-line health care worker, or have been isolated with chronic stress for over a year, the psychological impact can be hard to overcome.
Leah Whitworth, a licensed marriage and family therapist and behavioral health manager of adult psychiatry with Kaiser Permanente in Fresno, California, explains the different forms of post-trauma people may be experiencing now and how to transition safely and smoothly into a reopened world.
We have all had to contend with the effects of cumulative stress stemming from the pandemic, including financial insecurity, health-related fear, child care struggles, or simply the anxiety of everyday uncertainty.
This stress can result in depression, anxiety, exhaustion, fogginess, and feeling unmotivated.
“It’s OK to feel deflated or scared and know that others feel similarly,” Whitworth said, adding that it’s a normal reaction to an abnormal year.
If you experienced a traumatizing event such as being hospitalized for COVID-19 or someone close to you dying, you may still be coping with the emotions around it. We all respond to difficult events differently, and while many people heal from trauma without professional help, others may develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
“People with PTSD tend to consistently have intrusive thoughts about the traumatic event,” explained Whitworth. “Flashbacks and avoidance of people, places, or things that may trigger a reminder of the event are common.”
See your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms. Help can include talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people develop or improve coping skills.
Whitworth outlined some ways to help navigate the new normal.
It’s beneficial to recognize your current mental state and begin to understand how to improve it,” Whitworth said.
“When situations are scary or painful, it’s important to remember that the only person you have control over is yourself.”
While it’s likely many people will continue to struggle with lasting mental health symptoms, research on past mass traumas suggests that most people will recover once the pandemic ends.
Coping skills can be effective at helping to address anxiety and depression. “You have to control your mind instead of allowing it to control you, and coping skills are a method of doing that,” Whitworth said.
These can include being present, not allowing thoughts of the past or future to fester, and recognizing your fears and challenging them.
“Anxiety makes us want to avoid or escape what’s happening, which is normal,” Whitworth said. “To come out on the other side of these distressing feelings, you must notice and validate your anxiety and fear. Then push yourself to do the opposite; for example, participating in the very thing you’re afraid of.”
“You have to control your mind instead of allowing it to control you, and coping skills are a method of doing that.”
Sharing your story with a mental health provider or even a friend can begin the healing process.
“Therapy can guide you in how to talk about what you’ve been through and understand your feelings about it,” Whitworth said.
Schedule an appointment with a therapist, join a group therapy class, lean on friends and family, and be vulnerable about what you’re going through.
Wellness activities are something you can do right now to improve your mental health. Try guided meditation through the Calm digital tool, available to Kaiser Permanente members at no additional cost.
Carve out time for joyful activities, whether it’s reading, gardening, a hobby, or an at-home facial.
Lastly, we all know exercise and a healthy diet significantly impact psychological health. Make simple goals like moving more every day or taking short walks. Eat a balanced, nutritious diet and listen to your body’s natural cues, only eating when you’re hungry.
Do what you can to get enough sleep. Try not to look at your phone or TV at least 2 hours before bed.
As people head back to the office, kids return to school, and indoor dining and social activities resume, it’s important to address your mental health as it can have serious health outcomes if left untreated.
Explore information about Kaiser Permanente’s mental health services.