The cumulative effects of COVID restrictions may have hidden, long-term effects on our mental health long after lockdowns. We explore common signs and offer tips to manage the effects.
For more than a year, we’ve lamented limitations that curtailed our usual freedoms. Many of us will have felt frustrated about not being able to make our own life choices or follow through with plans. It was common practice to sit by the TV every Sunday, wishing for permission to return to normal life - from going to work to weekend cafe brekkies and watching the kids play sport. So why, when many restrictions are lifted, do some of us feel ambivalent about resuming activities we so desperately missed? In fact, there are valid reasons why many of us will experience anxiety and trepidation about returning to ‘normal life’ (or finding our ‘new normal’).
Repeat lockdowns and post-traumatic stress
It may sound counterintuitive, but later outbreaks and restrictions are thought to come with psychological effects different to - and perhaps worse than - those from previous lockdowns. This is true even when subsequent lockdowns are shorter or less limiting than earlier ones. One reason is that second and third-round lockdowns followed a period of returning to semi-normal life only to have it suddenly taken away. Mental health experts say that this, along with prolonged uncertainty, stress and sense of being unsafe during recurring COVID outbreaks, has made it difficult for many of us to trust that we will ever be able to enjoy the freedom to design our own lives without fear or anxiety. Some experts have likened the mechanisms of some reactions to those seen in clinical post-traumatic stress. Even among mentally healthy people, symptoms paralleling post-traumatic stress may include avoidance of specific situations or even of leaving the house, hyper-reactivity to ‘triggers’ and avoidance of feeling by engaging in ‘self-medicating’ behaviours from excessive busyness to alcohol consumption.
Self-management and recovery
Even if you’ve resumed normal activities and simply ‘got on with life’, there may be residual effects you don’t recognise or attribute to COVID outbreaks and restrictions. These may include persistent anxiety, having a temper or ‘short fuse’, avoidance of or lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, sleep disturbance and somatic complaints such as digestive issues and headaches. Like post-traumatic stress responses, the emotional and mental health effects may manifest months after the event (at the time, you enter a kind of survival mode). Whether you’re currently limited by restrictions or transitioning to ‘COVID-normal’ life, consider practising these simple self-care and self-management methods to optimise your mental health and wellbeing.
- Take it easy. When restrictions are lifted, we may feel a pressure, obligation or urgency to embrace our new freedoms in one fell swoop - from dining out to visiting friends and relatives and booking holidays. Remind yourself that there is no external deadline. It’s not a competition or race. Be patient with yourself and resume activities at a pace with which you feel comfortable.
- Focus on positive changes. The unprecedented challenges and changes imposed by COVID can make it tempting to dwell on what we’ve lost or sacrificed (e.g. missed time with loved ones or job opportunities). When you feel yourself ruminating, make a conscious effort to flip the coin. Compile a list of positive effects, such as increased contact with loved ones via video link or greater appreciation of relationships. Perhaps you’ve gained new skills or realised interests or passions such as art or cooking or gardening. Work to maintain any newfound pleasures.
- Take back control. Many of us will now face many new uncertainties and anxieties. We may face the challenge of finding a new job or even a new career. We may have to reassess our financial position and lifestyle. What previously seemed secure may now feel as though it’s up in the air. To combat the effects of such unknowns and restore a sense of agency and stability despite question marks, try to channel your focus and energy into what you can control. Maybe that’s rebuilding valued relationships, focusing on helping children with their academic work or undertaking a course to enhance your value in the workplace. Also focus on creating structure and routine, which can lend a sense of security and comfort.
- Reflect on past successes. Chances are you’ve overcome many stressful events and survived. In hindsight, you may have recognised valuable lessons and strengths gained through the experience. Reflect on these past challenges and harness the lessons or skills to navigate current challenges.
- Break the 'what if' loop. When external circumstances are uncertain, many people immediately imagine worst-case scenarios and 'what ifs'. Get out of the habit of ruminating about what might happen. Breaking this cycle or loop may mean avoiding triggers or stimuli that promote rumination such as watching the news or compulsively checking online news updates or news-related social media accounts.
- Engage in self-care. Good nutrition, sleep, exercise, leisure and relaxation practices can heighten resilience to mental and emotional stress by stimulating mood-regulating brain chemicals and promoting perspective and balance. Make a point of prioritising regular balanced meals, establishing good sleep hygiene, completing regular exercise and engaging in pleasurable and relaxing activities.
- Seek support. When you’re stressed, anxious or depressed, it can be tempting to withdraw and isolate, yet there is abundant evidence that social support from trusted friends or family can counteract the cycle of rumination that perpetuates symptoms.
If you are struggling with your mental or emotional health as a result of COVID, please reach out to a mental health professional such as a psychologist.