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Post-Pandemic Stress Reaction Awaits Many as COVID Subsides

Many people will need to process the tragedies of the past year to move forward.

Key points

  • Many have yet to process COVID-specific tragedies and need to mourn even as they’re driven to socialize and make up for lost time.
  • An ensuing “post-pandemic stress reaction” is likely to strike just as aftershocks come after the worst of an earthquake.
  • It’s important to take proactive measures if friends or family show signs of undue stress, anxiety, depression or addiction.
Dmitry Schemelev/Unsplash
Source: Dmitry Schemelev/Unsplash

As the nation sustains real progress in defeating COVID-19 and begins to truly emerge from the pandemic, it’s fitting to acknowledge that May is Mental Health Awareness Month—an opportunity to focus on the emotional toll of the last year and what comes next.

Though falling infection rates and increased rates of vaccination have left many of us feeling hopeful, emotional fallout awaits others, even as we’re able to embark on a return to normalcy.

Consider the tragedies that so many of us must process:

  • Premature deaths of loved ones whom we were not able to mourn together
  • Lost once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, like a senior year of high school or college
  • Missed occasions like weddings and other family gatherings
  • Loss of employment or income, and the identity, status, and comfort that came with it

While we’ve been experiencing these tragedies for much of the pandemic, the adrenaline that sustained us for so many months, literally enabling our “fight-or-flight” reflexes, will now wane, leaving many of us struggling to cope. All the while, many will feel incredible pressure to enjoy opportunities for socialization previously denied, regardless of what their true needs might be.

My colleagues and I have coined a term for this complex mix of feelings: “post-pandemic stress reaction.” Like the aftershocks that accompany an earthquake, it will strike many of us, though after the worst of the crisis is over.

Already, we have seen an uptick in calls among those worried about themselves and others. Presenting issues range from stress related to the next chapters of people’s lives, anxiety about post-COVID, in-person social and professional obligations, depression that has not lifted with the winter weather, and a dependence on drugs and alcohol, substances on which too many people relied to get through the past year.

Add in the 14.4 percent of U.S. adults who have at least one diagnosed mental health issue, and the potential for crisis becomes clear. In particular, those with serious mental health issues benefit from consistency and are often triggered by stressful situations, and many of us will find the post-pandemic world unpredictable and highly stressful.

So what’s to be done? I’ve been urging families of loved ones with mental illness to be on the watch for red flags, including a preference for isolation, suicidal ideation, and a dependence on drugs and alcohol. Those who become newly symptomatic—showing signs of mania, paranoia, psychosis, etc.—should receive immediate mental health services.

But one doesn’t need to know someone with a mental illness to apply this same thinking and approach. More than ever, it’s important to take account of the emotional well-being of the people in your life. Keep checking in with friends and family you don’t regularly see, regardless of whether your in-person social activities have resumed.

Ask them how they’re doing and show interest in an honest answer. Make space for them to share their real feelings. Urge them to get help if they need it.

Sadly, our mental health system remains mostly broken. Until the time comes when this can be fixed, it’s largely up to us as individuals to take care of the emotional needs of those in our families and larger communities.