This past fall, my two daughters went back to school in person. I reclaimed my office (which had been serving as a second- and then a third-grade classroom) and returned to work I had set aside when I realized that writing and overseeing virtual school were incompatible vocations. We began to plan for some short vacations by car. My high schooler was vaccinated, and then my 9-year-old. Things were looking up.
That’s when I started breaking down.
And I couldn’t understand why. Why — when there finally seemed to be a little hope — was I feeling hopeless? I thought there must be something wrong with me. But, a few text messages with friends made me feel less alone. One wrote, “life is going back to normal, but I don’t feel normal, and that’s confusing.” Another texted, “Everything feels hard — even when everything is technically ok — and I’m just not sure what will help.” I posted the second one on my Facebook feed, and the “Amens” came rolling in.
So, I decided to talk to mental health and grief experts about why we are feeling like this — if only so we know that we are not alone—and then see if there’s anything we can do about it. It made me feel a little better. I hope it does the same for you.
We are all going through a collective trauma
“Whenever I ask myself, ‘why are you so tired? The last few days have been kind of normal,’ I keep remembering that I am still dealing with the ongoing fallout of trauma building on top of trauma,” says Rebecca Soffer, co-author of Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Beginners Welcome.
For some, that trauma comes from losing loved ones, being desperately ill, or caring for someone who was. For others, it’s just the anxiety of living in fear for almost two years now. And for many, virtual schooling with no child care has strained finances and emotional wellbeing to the max. And, we’ve been muddling through all of it largely on our own because getting together was dangerous. That is traumatic.
We have been consistently stressed for much longer than nature intended
“The starts and stops related to the pandemic are what have been incredibly exhausting,” says Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of the online community and podcast Therapy for Black Girls. “When you think about a stressful event, there’s a lead up to it, the event itself, and then you’re able to come down to a resting place. We haven’t been able to do that with the pandemic. So, what’s happening in our bodies is that we are getting these shots of cortisol preparing us to run away from the bear, but it feels like there’s a bear every other week now. We are just not having enough time for our bodies to go back to a restful place.”
Even as I write this piece, there’s another bear chasing us: the rapidly spreading and largely unknown omicron variant. “When you’re on a heightened state of alert for two years, you’re going to be tired,” says Jessi Gold, MD, a psychiatrist and assistant professor and director of wellness engagement and outreach at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Every time there’s a glimmer of hope, it’s gone back. It’s like you’re running from a predator and your safe space keeps being moved farther away.”
We are tired from having to continually adjust our lives
“This has been an enormous transition that has no real precedent in many of our lives,” says Laura Miller, LCSW, a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in Brooklyn. “And it’s still not totally clear what the rhythm of the new life will be. We are incredibly reliant on our routines to keep us stable, and the constant recalibration that has been happening is exhausting in and of itself.” Just when we think we have a handle on the best ways to stay safe, new information, protocols, or virus variants throw us into another round of readjusting.
Returning to “normal” life is another big adjustment, and it will take time
“We basically got our brains and bodies to survive in a different way for two years. Now, with normal life attempting to move forward, your body is like, ‘wait a second, I just adjusted to this. What do you mean I have to go back?’” says Gold. “It’s not as easy as flipping a switch. There was an adjustment to get to one place, and it’s going to take an adjustment to get back.”
This resonates so deeply with me as I face the return of activities and events that used to be a staple of my social life. I just feel too tired, too hesitant, and too used to life at home in my sweats to even contemplate attending.
We haven’t had the time and space to tend to our mental health
“The fact that the pandemic is ongoing makes it difficult to truly mourn our losses,” says Miller, “For some, the slowing down process may be part of a kind of melancholy that sets in as we have the need to mourn, but don’t even have a new life to move on to yet.” Check.
“We are just flying by the seat of our pants, and when you keep going at that pace for so long without reflecting on the changes and what your needs are and how you can nourish yourself, you careen toward burnout,” says Soffer. “You can’t draw from an empty well, and I think a lot of our wells have been quite empty for a very long time.”
We’re not great at talking about our feelings, which makes it harder to move through them
“We live in a society that doesn’t like to acknowledge what’s going on. We like to bury things and then keep trying to go on,” says Gold. “But eventually, feelings catch up to you.” So, you might have been going along thinking you were handling all of the stress of the pandemic pretty well and then, “at a certain point, it just gets too much, and your body is like, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I’m too tired,’” says Gold.
For a bit this fall, when I would honestly respond to greetings, like, “how are you?” I was shocked when people seemed surprised. “Oh, what’s going on?” they would ask. And I was like, “um, ALL OF THIS!!!!” So, when I finally had those text exchanges with friends, it was such a comfort to know that I was not alone. As human beings, we need that validation to help us move through difficult emotions.
“When you don’t feel acknowledged in something that is legitimately hard that you are going through,” says Soffer. “It’s really hard to feel like you can move through it in a way that reminds you of your capacity for resilience and makes you feel supported and encourages you.”
We are in the midst of a recognized mental health crisis
“It is really hard to know at this point: do I have a depressive disorder, or is this normal for where we are in the pandemic?” says Harden Bradford. And the fact is, you very well could be experiencing a mental health disorder. A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 40% of adults have experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety during the pandemic.
“I think people are having symptoms of a depressive disorder and don’t know to call it that,” says Harden Bradford. “But we’re at the point where people have to pay attention to how their mental health is.” If you are struggling, take a look at these symptoms of depression and anxiety and reach out for mental health support. See below for more specific advice on getting that help.
We are all grieving
Some people lost family and friends to Covid-19. Others experienced less tangible losses, such as the loss of a work or school community. “I do not believe in anything like the grief Olympics,” says Soffer, who lost her mother and her father when she was in her 30s. “There’s room enough to hold space for everybody’s pain in this world,” says Soffer, which is exactly why she co-founded Modern Loss.
For Soffer, the start of the pandemic ignited the same panic and grief she had when she first heard her mother had died. “I have only had that feeling two other times in my life,” says Soffer. The most recent was that Thursday morning in March 2020, when we all awoke to the reality of the pandemic.
“It hit me that I didn’t recognize the world around me because something very profound had shifted in my life. In the case of my mom, it was her very sudden and violent death in a car accident the night before, and I was trying to figure out what is my world like without my person. How am I going to get through the next minute? Can I care for myself, who’s going to help me?,” says Soffer. “I had the very same reaction when I woke up that morning in March, and suddenly my babysitter couldn’t come in, I was working full-time, I had sick immediate family members, and I remember thinking what is this, how am I going to get through this, how am I going to take care of myself? What is the new normal?”
Soffer spends much of her time now supporting people through the losses of Covid. “I want to help people who aren’t just dealing with their loved one dying from Covid; I also want to help people who are 29 and thought they’d be dating now. Every single person in the world has been affected by this pandemic. Every age, every ethnicity, every belief system. You don’t have to have had your entire family die from Covid in order to legitimately be having a very hard time these days.”
And if you are, here are some gentle ways to lighten — or bear — the emotional load you’re carrying.
Take baby steps
If you don’t feel ready to return to socializing or other activities you used to do, that’s ok. “Just because you enjoyed something before doesn’t mean you’re ready to do that again,” says Gold. “Take baby steps, go to the shallow end and say, ‘these are the things I am going to start to do and see how I feel.’” If you need to — and can — take a step back from some things, then do it.
Control what you can
When Soffer realized she was having a reaction of grief in the early days of the pandemic, she says, “I automatically went back to my early days of grief coping mechanisms.” Rather than continuing to ask herself big questions, like “is everything going to be ok?” She focused on the minutes and hours in front of her. “Think about what you need to do in the immediacy of your life,” says Soffer. Harden Bradford recommends making sure you have done what you can to keep yourself and your loved ones safe, like getting vaccinated, boosted, and wearing masks.
“I read an article about people who run marathons once that asked, ‘how do you get through those 26 miles?’ and the answer was, ‘you just focus on the next tiny part,’” says Soffer. “You’ll never have all the answers at once.”
Screw the “shoulds”
“My clients are exhausted, this is a lot of work managing all of this,” says Shannon Wilkinson, a life coach in Portland, Oregon, “and then there are all these ‘shoulds’ about how we ‘should’ be managing ourselves: We should be over it, We should be used to it, and that just adds another layer of exhaustion. It takes so much energy to try and meet these ‘shoulds’ which are made up.” Pay attention to your “shoulds” and let go of any that are not about your direct safety or needs in the moment.
Rest when you can
Go to bed early, take naps whenever you can, sleep in when that’s an option, lie down when you feel tired. And don’t feel guilty about any of it. We all need rest. Full stop.
Get professional mental help if you need it
Therapists and mental health professionals are overloaded, and finding an appointment may not be easy, but if you are struggling, it is worth it. If you work for a company with an Employee Assistant Program, you can start there. Online resources like Betterhelp can also be an easy entry point, and you can find affordable options through the openpathcollective. Referrals from your primary care provider or friends and family can be helpful in both finding someone who is trusted and in getting a personal intro that might move you up a waiting list. Harden Bradford has a nationwide guide to Black therapists on her site.
Be real about how hard this is
“We have to realize and keep telling ourselves this is not normal,” says Soffer, “because when we don’t talk about it, we don’t feel acknowledged in it. And when you don’t feel acknowledged, it’s hard to heal from it because you don’t process it.”
Above all, give yourself compassion
“With the world as hard as it is, with work and life being as stressful as they are, we don’t need to add to it by being mean to ourselves,” advises Gold. Instead, she suggests, “talking to yourself like you’re talking to a friend or a younger version of yourself.” If they told you how much they were struggling, “you’d say, ‘hey, it might take time, and that’s ok.” Here are some ways to practice the underrated — and life-changing — practice of self-compassion.
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