After COVID-19: What Will Be the Long-Term Emotional Effects?

This pandemic has ravaged us physically and economically, but what’s not reported is how this pandemic has, and will, infect our mental health going forward.
In combat, we have many names for the devastating psychological repercussions of battle—PTSD, shell shock, battle fatigue, war neurosis, and so on. Regardless of what it’s called, the contributing circumstances are essentially the same—trauma, prolonged stress and fear coupled with feelings of helplessness and loss of control. Sound familiar? As we begin to experience the aftershocks of COVID-19 there will continue to be victims, and not just physical victims, but victims suffering from post-traumatic, psychological wounds
How could this not be the case?
Clearly there’s a big difference between combat and “sheltering-in-place.” But nevertheless, there are similarities. Similarities that predispose us to an aftermath of emotional disturbance. Surely not everyone will suffer long-term emotional interruption in their lives, but everyone, from the eight-year-old who couldn’t see his grandma, to the pregnant mother facing an uncertain delivery, to the nursing home resident confined to one room—has been emotionally tainted.
We now prepare to enter a familiar yet changed world. Boarded up store fronts, face masks, latex gloves, plexiglass barriers, and so on will no doubt contribute to a wariness, an undercurrent of social distrust brought about by our months of isolating. How long will it take before we feel comfortable sitting in a theater, going to a ball game or restaurant? What if someone reflexively extends their hand in friendship, or sits next to us in a bus or subway? What will we do? What will we feel? No one knows.
Even after COVID-19 is in our rear-view mirror, many of us will have a post-traumatic legacy that will continue to disrupt our lives and families. Few of us will be exempt from some degree of contamination. This will be the new abnormal normal. But humans are resilient; if it weren’t so we would have long ago become extinct.
As the days and months go by, our emotional sensitivity to COVID-19 will become less obvious, less painful, more muted. Every so often, something might trigger a response—someone pressing up against you while waiting in line at the Post Office, a co-worker sneezing in your direction, having to touch a door knob or shopping cart—and without thinking, knee-jerk like, you might find yourself re-experiencing old fears and emotions. Such is the nature of post-trauma.
Patience, these too shall pass.
Now is the time to begin to fortify ourselves and our psyche for what’s ahead in a post-virus world. It’s not unusual, although paradoxical, that as things continue to improve, we may actually see an uptick in our level of distress. Why? Because for the last year we’ve been in a kind of automatic survival mode—less thinking, more protecting. As if we’ve been holding our breath under water, we are finally able to reach the surface and gasp a breath—only to realize how close we came to drowning. But as we start to catch our collective breaths, we will begin to feel the toll our stress has taken—how depleted we are, mentally as well as physically.
Realize that as the intensity and stress of these past few months begin to flatten along with that damn curve (!) your emotions may lag behind. This is normal and should be expected. Don’t think that your psyche hasn’t been affected by what you’ve/we’ve gone through—it has! Hopefully soon, we will be headed for a post virus reclamation of our lives. Emotional desensitization will occur naturally over time as long as we are patient.
But in order to neutralize the lingering traumatic effects of COVID-19 we don’t want to be needlessly indulging insecurity-driven, reflexive ruminations, or revisiting those old doubts, fears, or negatives. These are self-protective habits we have adopted during the crisis. But habits are learned and all habits—even habits acquired emotionally during a pandemic—can be neutralized and broken.
Here are some Self-Coaching tips for emotional recovery:
• Don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional if your struggle begins to interfere with you day-to-day functioning.
• Expect to have emotional hesitations about resuming a more normal life. These feeling should be short-lived; simply ride them out without feeling something’s wrong.
• At first, don’t force yourself to do things that feel uncomfortable. Keep in mind that desensitization is a process. In time you will begin to see your old self and emotional life emerging.
• Be willing to share with others your concerns and fears, you’ll find that you’re not alone.
• Anxious or depressed moods may be part of your transition. With any mood, you’re either starving or feeding it. You feed anxiety or depression by allowing doubts, fears, and negative thoughts to go unchecked.

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