A few months ago, I wrote a blog about the complicated feelings of post-quarantine life. At that time, the Covid cases were receding and the people were beginning to anticipate a return to some measure of normalcy. Our changing world was evolving once again. Access to vaccines were followed by sharp reductions in infection rates. Restrictions were lifted. People were dining out, seeing movies, going to museums and traveling by plane. Although the virus kept us alert, it also seemed to be losing steam.
Then came the Delta Variant.
Just when we thought we were turning a corner, the Delta variant has disrupted our hopes for an end to the pandemic and injected fresh doubt, and restrictions, into our lives. Masking is back. Businesses, governments and schools are instituting vaccine mandates. Company plans for bringing workers back to the office are being scuttled. Intensive care units are filling up again.
Some of my clients express deep exhaustion and dejection about this turn of events and our changing world. I can empathize.
Looking for the Silver Lining
“We’ve… never had a break from the trauma”, says Tamar Rodney, a professor and mental health nurse practitioner at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “Instead of having time to rest and recover from the loss, fear, and burnout, we’re just … still in it …”.
She adds “what’s unusual and worrying about the pandemic from a trauma perspective is that it’s been going on for so long.”
Rates of depression, anxiety, PTSD, panic and suicidal ideation increased during the pandemic. Data indicates that at various times since March 2020, as many as 40% of US adults reported one or more of these mental health conditions. As people grapple with the ongoing uncertainty, there is cause for concern about the collective mental health impact.
Our Brains Don’t Like Ambiguity
I understand my clients’ fatigue because I realize how uncertainty affects the nervous system. Our brains don’t like uncertainty, because they equate that with being unsafe. The part of our brain that constantly scans the environment for threats, the amygdala, sees things as black and white. I’m safe or not. That’s good or bad.
In short, uncertainty complicates this process.
When the amygdala can’t detect certainty, it holds the nervous system in a state of tension. Bryan Robinson, a North Carolina-based writer and psychotherapist, notes this. He explains that “When you live in an amped-up state for too long—alarm bells ringing at full blast—it can burn you out, just like working overtime can.”
Finding Rest in the Midst of Unrest
Even though your brain reacts to uncertainty, that doesn’t mean you’re powerless to change how you feel. The brain is a complex organ, and has the capacity to receive and generate calming experiences and information to help counteract the stress of not knowing.
Below are a few strategies to help you find ground as we continue to navigate the unknowns of the pandemic and our changing world.
- Hug yourself. Studies suggest that hugging yourself can convey some of the benefits of receiving a hug from someone else. Hugging yourself can help relieve pain, increase feelings of self-compassion, and improve your mood. Dr. Julie Lopez, Director of the DC-based Viva Center, shares that “the butterfly hug offers our nervous system the chance to experience incredible self-soothing.”
- Tap yourself. The Emotional Freedom Technique, commonly referred to as tapping, uses acupressure points on the body to calm the nervous system. In tapping, light pressure is applied to pressure points and in a sequence. At the same time, a statement of safety, e.g. “I’m okay,” is paired with a statement of fear or worry, e.g. “even though I’m frightened about the future.” Tapping helps provide relief from stress while confronting our biggest fears.
- Spend time in the present. Anxiety, stress, and to some extent depression, are in part fueled by fear of what we can’t control in the future. Mindfulness practice teaches us to be in the present moment, where these mood states can have less power over us. Mindfulness, says Michele Topel, a licensed counselor at the Viva Center, “allows us to observe patterned, recurring narratives [about self, relationships, the world, the future, etc.] and realize we can choose them, or construct new ones.”
If this resonates with you and/or you know someone else struggling with overwhelm or burnout, please consider sharing this information in support to help them also find some in the moment respite and relief. For information on scheduling an appointment at the Viva Center, visit https://calendly.com/thevivacenter/intakes.
Regina Tosca, LICSW is a therapist at the Viva Center in Washington, DC. She works with people experiencing grief and loss, including from their work in animal welfare. Other blogs by Regina include “No Holiday Hugs: How can you cope with lack of touch?” and “Cognitive Tips for Chronic Pain Management.”