A few weeks ago The New York Times published a fantastic visualization of how the various waves of coronavirus have spread across the U.S. over the past two years. With the infection rate represented by increasingly dark colors, you can watch as the country transforms from light yellow to a deep angry purple and back again multiple times. It’s utterly transfixing (and utterly horrifying).
The waves of color make concrete the relentless rise and fall of not just infection rates, but also our collective optimism. Remember that brief window last May when vaccines were available and the future seemed as sunny as the map’s nearly coast-to-coast yellow? Remember the plunge into darkness when Delta swept through a few months later?
Now, thankfully, the map is heading back towards yellow again. But is your mood returning to its early summer buoyancy?
If the answer is no, a new article in the Atlantic offers some small degree of comfort. Speaking to multiple experts, writer Caroline Mimbs Nyce discovers that you’re very much not alone if you’re struggling to regain your mental footing even with the coronavirus again on the wane in the U.S. Psychologists tell her the ongoing malaise is normal and predictable given how much craziness we’ve all just been through.
The virus may fade but uncertainty lingers.
As I’ve covered here on Inc.com here before, it’s no shock that the coronavirus was terrible for our collective mental health. As far back as the ancient Greeks, it was recognized that being shut up with little outside stimulation as we all were during lockdown makes people listless and unhappy. And modern psychology shows that long-term stress is terrible for our mental health.
Covid brain is real then, but why isn’t it going away when the virus fades? In short, because while infections may be falling, the accumulated exhaustion and uncertainty lingers on.
“It’s called the burden of accumulated adversity,” Steven Taylor, a psychiatrist who wrote a book on the psychology of pandemics, tells Mimbs Nyce. “The more stresses you pile upon people, the greater their risk of developing psychological problems.”
“That jerking around is very, very stressful,” therapist and University of Minnesota professor Pauline Boss adds. “We are a mastery-oriented society. We like to put a helicopter on Mars. And suddenly we get this virus that can’t be controlled and hasn’t been now for such a long period of time.”
The collective burden of so much uncertainty, as well as Delta’s unpleasant reminder of just how unpredictable the future really is, means a lot of us are still struggling (my hand is in the air). That can show up as depression, burnout, irritability, or a lack of compassion for others (which is probably driving much of the recent spate of airline passenger craziness), as well as an uptick in those claiming they’re struggling in recent polls.
The better news
This continuing mental health toll is bad news overall. But if you’ve recently been feeling lousy about your own inability to snap out of your pandemic doldrums, then at least you should take comfort in knowing you’re neither alone nor weird. And the even better news is that all the experts Mimbs Nyce speak to are optimistic about the longer-term future.