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Emerging from a difficult year of COVID-19

Emerging from a difficult year of COVID-19

By Dr. J. Scott Hinkle • Guest Columnist | The COVID-19 crisis is winding down. This time last year we were thrust into panic, social distancing, masking, and hopelessness. Today, another crisis is revealed, namely mental health problems that will be felt for years after the pandemic is over. Many people are experiencing anxiety, depression, loneliness and isolation.

COVID-19 has been stressful for all of us. Each of us reacts to stress differently and coping with it can be difficult. The way each of us has responded to the pandemic depends on our backgrounds, health histories, politics and worldview.

Unemployment, economic loss, deaths of loved ones and friends, grief, loneliness, isolation, and quarantine stress can have extreme emotional and psychological consequences. Working and schooling from home adds to the stress equation, and those with less opportunity to work from home feel more exposed to the virus. Our schools have dealt with closures and disparities in digital access. Already stressed-out working parents have had to take on homeschooling.

This is not to mention that we have increases in domestic violence and child abuse that will result in stress-related issues like PTSD. Increases in alcohol abuse are another common response to stress. The pandemic began as the U.S. was grappling with a growing opioid crisis, and it will soon be back on the front pages as COVID-19 news subsides in intensity. Family funerals have been restricted or denied due to isolation ordinances and the risk of becoming infected, so we have watched our loved ones pass away on Facetime and Zoom.

People who respond more acutely to the stress of a crisis include older people and folks with chronic diseases. Those with mental health concerns before the pandemic are apt to see their symptoms increase and need to continue their mental health treatment despite issues with obtaining psychological care during the pandemic. Unfortunately, stigma due to race, ethnicity, and age also spreads throughout our communities. 

Threats, both real and perceived, increase our stress, fear, and worry, but in the context of the virus, these responses can seem normal. Responding to the pandemic can take an emotional toll on all of us — we can even experience secondary traumatic stress resulting from exposure to our family’s and friends’ COVID-19 traumas.

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Covid-19 was tailor-made to push us out of our comfort zones. So, how do we move forward in these unparalleled stressful times? First, it is important for us to maintain positive emotional health. This can include limiting watching, reading, or listening to COVID-19 news since this can cause many of us to feel more anxiety or depressed mood. We need the facts, but only at regular intervals. Good information reduces our worries about the virus and misinformation can be dangerous.

By supporting others, we also help ourselves. Psychologists call this altruism. By using our phones and social media we can check in on our neighbors who are isolated and might need assistance. Working together can help us create solidarity as we navigate our collective trauma during the pandemic. Essentially, altruism helps us to feel good by doing something good for someone else. For example, I took food to a rural family that could not grocery shop due to being health-compromised. I felt good about helping, and they received essential assistance.

Psychologically, we can effectively deal with our anxiety by taking time to relax and connect with friends and family on a regular basis. It is stressful for us to constantly social distance, wear a mask and repeatedly wash our hands. Although stock piling toilet paper is something we can do to help us feel more in control, awareness of how we feel and doing something about it will be more useful. Faced with new realities associated with the pandemic, it is important that we take a look at and do something about our mental health. It is OK to reach out to family, friends, clergy, and mental health professionals if you need help.

In conclusion, we also will have emotional reactions as we begin to come out of the pandemic. Although relieved, we will still have fears and worries about getting the vaccine, continuing to monitor our environments for signs of illness, and dealing with our frustrations, sadness and even anger regarding our past years’ experience. Some of us might even experience guilt because we managed the pandemic without losing our jobs, not becoming infected and not losing any loved ones. We need to keep our aperture wide open and be aware of psychological and emotional issues that might arise as the spring and summer reveal our post-pandemic futures. It is critical to ask for help if you are feeling concerned or overwhelmed that COVID-19 is affecting your ability to care for yourself or your family.

(Dr. J. Scott Hinkle is a Waynesville psychologist (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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