It’s an unfortunate example of deja vu all over again. The devastating surge in the delta variant of the coronavirus has abruptly curbed our newfound freedom – bringing back mask mandates, restrictions and fear, and leaving many Americans frustrated, stuck, demoralized or worse. Among the most common responses are despair (I can’t go through this again!) or anger (I can’t believe I have to go through this again because some people won’t get vaccinated!) or a deep sense of weariness.
These reactions are understandable given what we’ve been through, experts say.
“People lived for a year, terrified they were going to get COVID, and we had a carrot in front of us to get vaccinated then go back to normal life,” says psychologist Alice Domar, executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Mass. “People were celebrating when they got to two weeks after their second vaccine. They had a month or two of getting a taste of freedom, then Provincetown hit” – the July outbreak in the Massachusetts beach town fueled by the delta variant – “and on a dime people had to start thinking about changing their behavior again.”
Eileen Siegel, 44, a single mother with a 6-month-old baby, is angry about being compelled to change her behavior because of other people’s thoughtlessness. “I haven’t taken my child out, because I don’t want to expose my baby to somebody who hasn’t been vaccinated and won’t wear a mask,” said Siegel, a middle-school special-education teacher who lives in Westwood, Mass. “I have a lot of pent-up rage toward the part of the population that is not following the guidelines. I wish everybody would do their part to help us move forward.”
James Gilbert, 58, an orthopedic surgeon at Metro Orthopedics & Sports Therapy in Potomac, Md., shares Siegel’s frustrations. “I’m angry because this surge was preventable,” said Gilbert, who has three children. “The behavior of people who won’t get the vaccine is infringing on our liberties. Every time another round of restrictions comes up, it’s another gut punch, and there are consequences for businesses, restaurants, stores and our kids in schools. I want all this craziness to end.”
This here-we-go-again feeling can be mentally and emotionally draining. With the first wave or two of coronavirus cases, there was a perception that we were collectively working toward an endpoint when this pandemic would be over, notes Michele Ford, a licensed psychologist in private practice and a professor of psychology at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “That endpoint keeps getting pulled away. We’ve been at this so long that people are developing a sense of learned helplessness, and there’s an element of exhaustion. Everybody’s really tired of dealing with this.”
Domar, Ford and other psychologists we talked to have helpful strategies for handling these troubling feelings.
Instead of fighting the distress or anger you’re feeling, try to accept and acknowledge those feelings. “What we’re dealing with is a time of uncertainty – and people have a hard time with uncertainty,” says Allen Elkin, a psychologist in New York and the author of “Stress Management for Dummies.” Acknowledging how you feel about this distressing, confusing time is essential if you want to better tolerate the discomfort.
Research has found that accepting negative emotions, as well as the situations that elicit them, can lead to a healthier response to stressful situations. “Give yourself permission to say, ‘I’m tired and I’m having a hard time dealing with this again’ – when you do that, you normalize it,” Ford says.
It can also help to use statements of acceptance – such as, “I can accept that this is more complicated than we thought” or “We aren’t finished yet” – to give yourself a rational reality check, Elkin says. “To be clear, [the surge of the delta variant] was a definite setback,” he adds. “This is not a development we wanted. But you don’t have to like it to accept it.”
Offload your emotions in a healthy way
Sharing your feelings with other people can reduce your stress. But you must do so carefully, especially if you’re venting to a friend.
“If two people are venting together, that can make people feel worse and distance them from each other,” Ford says. It can also turn into co-rumination – rehashing and dwelling on negative feelings with someone else – which research has found can increase stress hormone levels in women. So, if you and a friend vent your frustrations to each other, keep it brief, then move the conversation on to another subject.
If you need to spend more time expressing your emotions, consider doing so in writing, either by hand or on a computer. A 2020 study found that writing about stressful, emotional or traumatic events can improve emotion regulation. “When people write about their anger, frustration and confusion about these issues, they tend to get insights into their feelings,” Domar says.
Embrace what you can do
Even with the surge of the delta variant, you can continue to see friends outside, exercise regularly, eat healthfully, get enough sleep, play with your pets and enjoy hobbies you’ve developed. “Do what’s right in front of you – it will help you feel less lost,” says Nancy Haugen, a clinical psychologist in San Francisco.
Erica Banderob, a retired teacher in Sandwich, N.H., is taking this approach. After relishing being able to see friends and other people in her community when restrictions eased in the spring, she is recalibrating which choices are worth the risk. But rather than dwelling on the fact that she doesn’t feel comfortable getting in a closed car with members of her hiking club, Banderob is focusing on spending time in nature with her husband.
“It doesn’t do me any good to think about my frustration and anger about being back in this situation,” says Banderob, 68. “I’m trying to do things that are fun and meaningful.”
Consciously shift your attention
When feelings of despair or rage flare up, consider using distraction tactics – engaging in a creative activity, reading something interesting or inspiring, or listening to music that moves you – to steer your mind in a different direction. “It’s hard to think about two things at the same time,” Elkin says. “You don’t have to feed every negative thought that you have. Worry can become the mother of anxiety.”
In a 2018 study, researchers compared the effects of worry, rumination and distraction on people’s ability to recover from a stressful situation in mind and body. They found that subjects who distracted themselves after exposure to stress recovered more quickly physiologically, based on skin conductance measures, and psychologically, based on mood assessments. “These findings may provide important insights into the effects of different forms of repetitive negative thinking on physiological and psychological recovery from stress,” the researchers concluded.
Take brief mental vacations
Ford suggests planning several five- to 15-minute breaks throughout your day to “set stress aside” and do something that rejuvenates you. That could mean getting fresh air by going for a walk outside, closing your eyes and visualizing someplace that feels soothing and restful, doing stretching or deep breathing exercises – “anything that allows your body to not be on,” Ford says. Besides clearing your mind, taking these recharging breaks throughout the day helps prevent exhaustion, she adds.
Mine your personal history for lessons
“Remember a time in your life before the pandemic that was really hard or when you felt this way,” Haugen says, and consider how you got through it. Perhaps you talked to a therapist, reduced your workload or added more R&R to your schedule, and it’s time to put one or more of those strategies into practice again.
Reflecting on how you handled past challenges also can remind you how resilient (rather than helpless) you are. “It’s like a scar: You went through something, it left its mark, you got through it, and it became a story,” Haugen says. Eventually, that will happen with this distressing period, too.
Remember that this, too, shall pass
Knowing that you can get through upsetting times, especially with the help of these strategies, can help you cultivate a sense of healthy optimism. “The experience of [the pandemic] getting better in the spring brings a sense of realistic hopefulness that it will happen again,” Elkin says. “This setback is not going to last forever.”
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Stacey Colino is a co-author of “Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.”