In a coal mine, it’s the canary that signals trouble is on the way. In our homes, it might be a smoke alarm. In our bodies and minds, it can be a plethora of signs, from stomachaches and insomnia to an increase in unhealthy behaviors and feelings of rage. Living through a pandemic has shown us just how varied — and personal — warning signs that things aren’t OK can be.
Since we first heard about COVID-19 in early 2020, we have felt worry, fear, sadness and anger, and experienced illnesses, deaths of loved ones, financial strain and isolation. We’ve had hope as COVID-19 case numbers went down, then despair as they trended up once again.
Together, we’re experiencing a phenomenon some are calling “COVID whiplash.” And according to Kim Eisenberg, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, it’s vital we learn how to identify and cope with it because COVID-19 just might be here to stay for a while.
“We’ve all been in this state of stress and isolation,” Eisenberg says. “Combine that with the current sociopolitical climate and economic stressors, and people are experiencing very individualized forms of trauma. When we don’t have the words or the thoughts to express all of the pain we’re in, emotions can come out sideways, behaviors can become problematic and things can tend to manifest physically.”
According to Eisenberg, because it is the first time in this lifetime that we’ve felt a sort of universal, prolonged, invisible trauma, it is not always clear — or uniform — how individuals will react. What’s more, we’re faced with ongoing, accelerated change and a feeling of being pulled back-and-forth between concern and relief, lockdowns and lifted restrictions.
“We do well with routine and predictability,” she says. “But when really difficult circumstances are continually thrust upon us, we as a species are not good at dealing with that.”
How we react to trauma
While some people will be able to shake things off and tap into their internal resilience more easily than others — simply because of their own lived experiences and internal temperament — others may not be able to bounce back as quickly. And according to Eisenberg, both responses are normal.
“Some who have had what, on paper, might look like a much more profound trauma exposure might weather it a lot better than somebody who, from outward appearances, experienced what looks like more mundane, day-to-day stress that has worn them down in a different way, causing them to feel less resilient,” she says.
Eisenberg says that the inability to cope with either form of trauma — acute or prolonged — can manifest in different responses. People may begin to:
- Engage in behaviors that feel foreign, such as feeling profound loneliness and deep yearning for connection with others, but not taking an opportunity to spend time with someone when it arises
- Act in ways that are counter to our identified values and desires, such as using alcohol, food or excess spending to self-soothe
- Have low frustration tolerance, act irritable, have angry outbursts or display more of an overt kind of rage, such as road rage when driving
- Stop taking care of ourselves in basic ways — sleep is disrupted; school or work productivity wanes; or we avoid brushing our teeth, doing laundry or paying bills
- Experience increases in chronic health conditions and pain, such as migraines and gastrointestinal distress
“We know that trauma is stored in the body,” Eisenberg says. “If we don't get rid of it, it stays in our body and comes out as illness.”
The collision of denial, refusal and despair
Additionally, Eisenberg explains that some people will react to the constant stress and waves of change throughout the pandemic by denying the inherent danger of COVID-19 or refusing to practice COVID-related precautions.
“A lot of people are expressing that they’ve reached the end of their rope, just can’t do this anymore and refuse to return to universal precautions,” she says. “It’s an understandable response but not a healthy one. It’s not going to make it better for anybody because those types of behaviors are going to be what keeps the pandemic around for that much longer.”
Instead of denial and refusal — which can trigger anger, despair and even rage in people who feel like they’ve consistently played a role in helping to end the pandemic — Eisenberg says that we need to identify our emotions, acknowledge the stress and pain we are feeling, and really give the experiences and emotions the time and the space they deserve.
Tapping into what led to resilience before
We must then look to the tried-and-true personal methods of self-help and tap into our own internal resources that have allowed us to cope with everything surrounding the pandemic so far. Identify what has helped us to be resilient and walk through our fear, anger, sadness and pain, and apply it again.
“It sounds simplistic, but each of us is unique in terms of what helps us move through difficult situations, and we’re all the subject-matter expert in ourselves,” Eisenberg says. “Reflect back on what historically has been a good source of resilience, what has helped you in previous situations to weather a storm. A lot of it is about taking really good care of our bodies — sleep, hydration, healthy diet, mindfulness and exercise — and our brains will follow.”
Additionally, she says, we must work toward letting go of the things that are ultimately not serving us. These are the things that might feel good in the moment but are not in our best interest in the long term, such as misusing alcohol, food, shopping or relying on other unhealthy behaviors.
At the top of Eisenberg’s personal list of recommended healthy behaviors is connecting with others. She suggests mindfully looking at where and how we can seek connection while keeping public health guidelines in mind. “The way we get through difficult things is through connection,” she says.
It is also important to turn to the people in our lives not only for connection, but also for support. While it can be difficult to ask for help because we don’t want to burden others, Eisenberg advises people to recognize that if a friend came to them for support, they would unequivocally be open to it, and willing to carve out the time and the space to help them. “Remind yourself that you are equally worthy and deserving of that same support,” she says.
The importance of patience in seeking professional care
Some of us, however, may find that we will experience the most relief through the help of a professional therapist. While mental health practitioners are experiencing what Eisenberg says is an unprecedented demand for help, it is more important than ever to seek care and not to be deterred if you can’t immediately find the perfect fit.
“If you’re seeking professional help for the first time, it’s important to understand that the past 17 months have made the search a bit more difficult to navigate,” Eisenberg says. “Be prepared to commit yourself to finding a provider who’s a good fit, and be patient and persistent. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself or to ask a loved one to support you in your search.”
How to tolerate the negative and celebrate the positive
As we learn to tolerate the uncomfortable realities of the pandemic, Eisenberg suggests we must also remember to celebrate the parts that are good. Recognize that things have improved since March 2020: We have new treatments for COVID-19, safe and effective vaccines are available, and more than half of the population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated.
“Yes, it’s tough. And at the same time, because we’re all vaccinated, I was able to have a picnic and hug my friends,” she says. “We need to find a place of balance around our own personal risk tolerance, our wants and needs, and our sense of commitment to the public good. Our connection, our community and our shared humanity are going to be the things that get us through.”
Learn more about mental health services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and read important COVID-19 information from Sharp.