Life After Covid: Mental Health Variables to Consider
One of the things I miss the most about every day life, as it used to be, is being able to walk down the street and see people smile.
The regular, every day act of walking down the street, someone else approaching you coming from the opposite direction. One of you smiles first, the other smiles back and you move on down the road and go on about your day.
There's something about that that little interaction that has a positive impact on mood and a cumulative impact on us as individuals and collectively. It’s a small thing that I miss, but it's an important thing.
Smiling is contagious, emotion is contagious. Positive emotion is the right kind of contagious. We’ve been dealing with, obviously, the wrong kind of contagious for over a year now and I think everyone's ready to get back to everyday life.
We’ve missed out on, individually and collectively, some really big things. People losing loved ones, people losing jobs, missed graduations, cancelled travel and sporting events. And we lost out on a lot of little things, like seeing a person smile as they walk past you on the street, instead of seeing a person with a mask on.
As we get back to normalcy, which hasn’t quite happened yet but is slowly starting to happen and will probably happen more and more over the next year, there are certain things that we have to be aware of…things we have to be cautious about, things we have to be excited for, and things in between.
One of the things we work on with clients at Riser and Tread, where we help young guys Step Up + Move Forward, is to anticipate and plan for certain things so that we can maximize the chance of reaching our goals and also position us ourselves to push through adversity. We balance two things, accounting for and planning for possible life events ahead of time, while also not going too far with anticipation.
Going too far with anticipation happens in two ways. One, is where we overly predict the future and think we have a crystal ball, often called forecasting, where we zoom ahead and make too many assumptions. The other is where we get caught up in our imagination and we anticipate only negative things happening, often called catastrophizing.
We try to find that balance, where we can't predict the future and we certainly can't predict that everything is going to be negative, but we also want to plan effectively and look ahead so that we can try to anticipate, at least to some degree, what to expect, both good and bad.
This article is no different. I'm no different. I don't have a crystal ball. From a mental health perspective, I can take a few guesses about things that, collectively, we should be aware of in a way that will help us adjust as life hopefully returns to normal over the next year.
It’s easy to think that because we just went through a pandemic that as the situation eases and we're able to resume life in more normal ways, that everyone will be fine, that life will become one big party to make up for lost time. And while that would be nice, it's rare that things happen that way and it's important to recognize that collectively we've been through something very traumatic over the last 1+ years. Life after trauma can be difficult and can be a struggle. Even after there is separation from the source of trauma, there can be lasting effects. Reviewing the things to keep in mind may help the process of moving forward.
Things to Consider
So, what are the things to look out for? Firstly, not everyone experiences trauma the same way and we still don't know exactly why that is, so it's important not to judge any one person for either experiencing this trauma as traumatic or being able to move past the trauma quickly without any reaction.
It’s easy to envision people, regardless of how trauma impacts them, potentially having others around them (friends, loved ones, etc.) who may be confused by the way they experience trauma and/or life post-trauma. Some people might get mad at a family member or loved one for experiencing post-traumatic symptoms in a very difficult way because it's painful to witness and it's hard on the family members to see them go through that.
For people who move on from this trauma very quickly, I can see those people having friends and loved ones around possibly judging them, wondering things like “why don’t you care more about what we just went through” or “how could you move on so easily" or or things like that.
It’s important to not judge ourselves or the people around us too harshly for how we end up experiencing life post-Covid, post-trauma, because it can be luck of the draw and everyone is different, everyone experiences trauma differently, and it's somewhat unpredictable. We won't know until we get there and it’s key to be open-minded, empathic and supportive of people in terms of how they end up dealing with this and how it affects them.
People also cope with with trauma in very different ways. Not everyone has the same approach, some people require more time than others, some might require more space, some people might require less space and need to be around people more to make up for what they've lost. Everyone has the right to do what they need to do, within reason, as long as it's healthy, to be able to recover from this. That might involve, especially with parents, giving a little bit of extra flexibility with allowing their kids to be spend extra time with friends or allow for certain things that in the past may have warranted rules being applied more strictly.
This has happened during the pandemic as well, one example being with video games. Parents have had to loosen up restrictions on video games and screen time in general, because this has been the main form of social connection for the better part of a year for many. Maintaining some social connection became the priority over strict enforcement of past screen time and/or video game use rules.
As we ease out of the pandemic gradually, there might be something similar, where people may have to think outside the box, get creative, and be open-minded to letting their loved ones do what's necessary to be okay.
Zone of Proximal Development
Regardless of personal preferences for how to adjust to life post-pandemic, one helpful concept that comes to mind is called the zone of proximal development, often called the 20% rule. We use this concept in our work with clients to help them understand that being 20% out of your comfort zone is really the sweet spot, because that's where you're growing at the best pace without pushing yourself too far to quick, risking shut down. If you push yourself more than 20% out of your comfort zone, shut down can happen. If you push yourself less than 20% out of your comfort zone, potential personal growth is essentially being avoided.
For life post-Covid and easing back into the regular swing of things, looking at decisions from this 20% perspective can be helpful, in terms of how often we're going outside and hanging out with friends, how often or where we are traveling, and how often we are having in-person conversations or going to in-person events at varying scales.
Mental Health Issues May Linger
Mental health challenges, particularly anxiety, depression, and substance use, may linger for some time and not disappear right away. While we have already covered how many people deal with life post-trauma in different ways, this trauma is unique in that it didn’t occur in one instance. The collective trauma that is Covid-19 occurred in a complex manner, over more than a year. During this period, people were forced to adapt and many struggled to do so in healthy ways. We won’t know the full mental health toll that this experience has taken on society for several years, possibly even a decade or more. We have to anticipate that for many, unhealthy habits adopted during a period of prolonged isolation will likely stick around for some time.
Roller Coaster Recovery
There may be an adrenaline boost to start, followed by a crash. This is similar to how people often set “end-product” goals, like “I want to get a degree in xyz” or “I want to buy my own house” or “I want to make a million dollars.” Goals are great, but if we fixate only on the end result, when the result comes there tends to be a let down. People EXPECT that the end result will solve their problems, or enable them to finally feel good about themselves, or remove all stress from life. When that doesn’t happen, the fall from expected impact to actual impact is steep. This deficit leaves people really vulnerable when they get to the bottom of that steep decline. Post Covid-life could involve one or several of these types of shifts as people get back to regular life and expect things to finally be perfect, only to realize that’s not how it works.
Change Will Be Gradual
There will be a gradual change over, not an abrupt return to normalcy. This will have the impact of confusing people. We don’t know who has received the vaccine and who hasn’t, there is no way to visually signify that, so mask wearing will likely continue. Those with masks will look confusingly at those without masks, and vice versa. This could cause a palpable tension, driven by judgment and mistrust. While I long for the casual passerby smiling at me and me smiling back, during this in-between period there will be many situations in which a person with a mask and one who is mask-less walk by each other…both people smiling is not likely to occur, and even if it does, unless both are mask-less there is no way to tell if both are smiling, which may cause non-verbal communication confusion and discomfort at best, tension and judgment at worst.
Introverts May Struggle
Out of those who are introverted and/or struggle with social anxiety, the return to normalcy may be a bumpy ride. This period has provided a bit of validation for them, having the rest of the world experience to some degree what their lives were like on a regular basis pre-pandemic. Now that things will start to resume some semblance of normalcy, these persons will have to push themselves to “get back out there” socially and may elect to slant towards avoidance instead. The impact of this may take years to assess. If a person does embrace the need to return to normalcy, their year+ of being isolated will make adjustment particularly hard on them. If they elect to continue isolation, the ability to adjust back to normalcy will only become more and more elusive, leading to a wave of inactivity, prolonged social isolation and heightened risk of possible agoraphobia.
Uncertain Economic Impact
The economy seems to be opening up again, but there are a lot of unknowns, and the nature of jobs may change in ways we don’t quite understand yet. This is more something to monitor, as it’s hard to know what will happen until it happens.
Restaurant Industry May Not Come Back The Same
Along similar lines, the impact of Covid-19 on the restaurant industry will affect more people than we think. The restaurant industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Longstanding and well-known restaurants everywhere have disappeared for good. As of January 2021, over 2.5 MILLION restaurant jobs in the US were lost as a result of the pandemic. This has been brutal for those who lost jobs and the owners of these restaurants. There is no guarantee these jobs come back. How restaurants function in general may change permanently as a result of this fallout and there are a lot of unknowns. This also impacts collective wellbeing. Restaurants are a place to eat good food, socialize, and ultimately relax. This is a big part of collective self-care, being able to balance life by going out to spend time with people and get away from life stress. With fewer places to get this life balance, and the places and spaces from past fond memories now gone forever, there could be a collective impact hurting our ability to achieve the balance and life enjoyment we need to move forward.
Social Lives May Be Forever Changed
Going through this pandemic had a profound impact on many people’s social lives. Fringe or periphery friendships were all but weeded out in favor of close friends and family members within “pods.”
Additionally, for the United States in particular, the political and social climate took a very drastic turn towards increasing polarization. This country has always been divided along party lines, but these last few years, and especially 2020, led to many family and friend relationship ties being irreparably severed for good. When dealing with adjustment, it is so key to have familiar faces to see, foundational people we trust in our lives to spend more time with. With many of these relationships being cut off for good, it will leave people with fewer familiar faces and fewer reminders of life before Covid. While from a “glass half full” perspective, this presents a “clean-slate” opportunity for many to reassess their values and connect with people who share similar values, it is still a large loss that may need to be grieved, and it will definitely make the present and future feel less familiar.
While there are clearly many speed bumps ahead, one silver lining is that adversity can breed increased resilience. Adversity can help remind us to boil things down to what is truly important about life. Adversity can help us tune out the noise and look for the little things to be grateful for. Like walking down the street, seeing someone else smile, and smiling right back.