In life, there are many befores and afters. For all of us, there is now a before the pandemic and an after the pandemic. And, while many things in our daily lives have started to look like they did before, we are still (and will continue to be) in the after. And what does that after look like? Well, anything as large-scale as a worldwide pandemic is bound to influence mental health. It should come as no surprise that we are seeing a rise in mental health concerns as we work to find a new normal after the pandemic.

Now, you might be thinking, ‘Yes, we know the pandemic was bad. And sure, it affected people’s mental health. But it’s 2023, why are we talking about this?’ Well, we’re talking about it because sometimes in order to move forward, we have to know what obstacles might be in our way.

Of course, the pandemic didn’t exist in a vacuum. There have been many other events and situations over the past couple years that have contributed to the state of mental health. Today we’ll look at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, but we recognize that it is impossible to separate out the various influences that affect mental wellbeing.

Mental Health in 2023

Research around the mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is just starting. However, some early research is showing that since 2021 there has been an increase in substance use, death by drug overdose, and death by suicide. In 2023, 3 in 10 adults are reporting symptoms consistent with anxiety and depression, and while this number has slightly decreased since 2021, it is still concerning.

In addition to these alarming statistics, we are seeing anecdotal effects on mental health. Many adults are reporting continued feelings of uncertainty, hopelessness, and loneliness. There also appears to be a rise in burnout among working adults across all industries, particularly among educators and medical professionals.

Why the Pandemic Affected Mental Health

It may seem obvious that such a monumental event affected people’s mental health. But it may not be as clear why. A core component to managing mental health is understanding its root. Let’s look at the main reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in our collective mental health.

The pandemic was a trauma.

It is important to acknowledge that the pandemic was a form of collective trauma. What does that mean? Trauma can be a loaded term, so let’s break it down.

What is trauma? It is physiological and psychological (brain and body) distress in response to an event that exceeds an individual’s ability to cope. In other words, it’s how our brain and body respond to an event that is bigger than our coping abilities.

Image contains the definition of trauma: Trauma is physiological (body) and psychological (brain) distress in response to an event that exceeds and individual's ability to cope.

Whether or not an event becomes a trauma is dependent on the individual. What can be manageable for one person might not be manageable for another. While many adults have developed coping mechanisms for dealing with stressful events, the pandemic was a new stressor and, in general, exceeded our ability to cope as it was something we’d never had to navigate before.

Understanding that the pandemic was a form of trauma is helpful, because fortunately, we have a lot of research on the impact of trauma. For instance, we know that the effects of trauma can bubble up even years after the traumatic event occurred. We also know that unaddressed trauma can have adverse effects for the brain and body.  

While this doesn’t exactly sound like good news, being able to label something as traumatic is often the first step to managing it.

The pandemic was a threat to our survival.

The early days of the pandemic were chaos. There was an invisible threat to our lives that we knew very little about. As experts learned more, the information and best practices for staying safe changed almost daily. As the virus spread, we had to face the fact that it could be deadly.

Human beings have an excellent built-in stress response system that keeps us safe when our lives are in danger. Typically, when that response system is activated, it does its job, makes sure we are safe, and then shuts itself down. Learn more about the science of stress here. When it came to a virus like COVID-19, the threat was ever-present. Since we can’t see a virus heading our way like we can see a predator preparing to attack, we were consistently on high alert. When the brain experiences this kind of vigilance for an extended period, it experiences what’s called toxic stress. Toxic stress is a form of trauma.

Some of us may look back on the early days of the pandemic and remember feeling overwhelmed and stressed while others may remember feeling okay. The degree to which the pandemic affected each person varies. But no matter what our experience was, the global picture was one of a deadly virus that threatened our survival and created a collective trauma.

It is also important to recognize that the health threat was not the only threat the pandemic posed. Many people lost jobs, housing, and other forms of security during the pandemic. While we may not immediately think of those things as integral to our survival, they are.

The pandemic created uncertainty and instability.

If you’ve ever been on a boat for an extended period of time, you’ve probably experienced the sensation of “sea legs”. This is the sensation that your body feels like it is swaying as though it is still on water, even after returning to solid land. It has kind of been like that with the pandemic.

For over two years, we had to adapt to an unstable, rapidly changing way of life. Guidelines around health and safety were constantly changing, job and housing insecurity was high, and we had no idea when or if this time of uncertainty would end. With so much instability, it is understandable that we would still be experiencing anxiety even now that the emergency has subsided.

We are once again able to go to school and work, and we can once again spend time with our friends and family in person. However, we might still be walking around on sea legs, feeling a bit uncertain and shaky while we continue to figure out how to adjust.

Let's do a quick recap

In 2023, a third of adults are reporting mental health concerns. Because we know how stress and trauma affect mental health, we can understand how the stress and trauma of the pandemic could be contributing to a rise in mental health concerns. We can also recognize how we may still be experiencing anxiety related to the pandemic even though the emergent threat of the virus has subsided.

Ways We Can Care for Our Mental Health

So… what are we to do with this information?

While the state of mental health following the pandemic is concerning, it is not the end of the story. Awareness of the issue is the first step. Taking time to recognize how the pandemic affected (and continues to affect) our lives helps us determine how we want to move forward. And the good news is that we are resilient!

Consider these tips incorporating the four corners of wellness for repairing and building strong mental health.

Take time to recognize and address emotions.

Sure, emotions can sometimes be inconvenient. If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by a big emotion when you’re trying to get something done on time, you know this. But emotions are not something to be set aside for a more convenient time and place. Emotions function as communicators. They can alert us to changes in our mental and physiological state, letting us know that something might need to be addressed. They are also activated and processed in multiple parts of the brain.

While we can’t avoid emotions, we can learn how to recognize and address why we are experiencing those emotions and manage how they are making us feel.

Being able to recognize and address our emotions is important for managing and improving our mental and physical health. Avoiding emotions can cause them to get stuck, and when they get stuck, they can affect our mood and cause us to experience physical discomfort such as persistent headaches. 

There are many ways to identify and process emotions. Sitting with a professional, talking with a friend, journaling or meditating can all create space to sit with emotions.

Another great way to process emotions is by engaging with the arts through painting, writing, or singing, or by doing a creative activity. Emotions are complex, and sometimes we experience emotions that we aren’t consciously aware we are experiencing. The arts engage multiple neural pathways at the same time. This allows us to process complex emotions and express feelings. Additionally, research has shown that participating in activities like creative writing and even coloring can help reduce cortisol levels and alleviate stress.

Because we know how impactful the arts can be when it comes to emotions, we’ve come up with an art-based activity to help you start processing any emotions you may still be feeling about the pandemic. 

Emotions Through Art

Make space for grief.

We all had different emotional experiences during the pandemic. However, one emotion we all experienced was grief. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about an unprecedented amount of loss. Among the losses were the lives of loved ones, jobs, security, stability, health, and time.

The pandemic hit some people harder than others, but everyone experienced some kind of loss, and when we experience loss, it is important that we make space to grieve that loss. To read more about the collective grief we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit this link.

There is no right or easy way to grieve. Grieving looks and feels different for everyone. Here are some things to keep in mind when processing grief.

  • The emotions that bubble up during a period of grief are often complex and can feel unwelcome, but it’s important to identify and feel all feelings. Sometimes when grieving we can experience guilt or shame about what we’re feeling. When this happens, it can be helpful to remember that feelings should be felt, not judged.
  • Grief is often felt in the body, which means that while we are grieving, we may experience physical pain in addition to emotional pain.
  • There is no time limit for grief.
  • Life doesn’t stop when we are grieving, but it can sometimes feel like it does. Grief can be overwhelming and even debilitating, and in those times all we can do is take each day as it comes.
Be in community.

The human brain is a social one. Even the most introverted people need to spend time with others. When we have healthy interactions with others, our brains release feel-good hormones like oxytocin, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin. While there were other activities that we could do in isolation to release these hormones, nothing can truly replace our need to spend time with others.

For the last few years, spending time with others posed potential health risks. This loss of community and quality time with others left most of us experiencing feelings of loneliness. Now, if you spent most of the pandemic stuck in the house with your immediate family, you might be thinking, ‘I wasn’t lonely. I didn’t need to be around other people; I needed a break from them!’ But there are many types of relationships and human interactions that every human needs beyond their immediate family. So even those who were surrounded by family members every day during the pandemic most likely still experienced loneliness and a feeling of loss being separated from their extended community.

Fortunately, because we now have better ways to prevent and treat the virus, we have been able to return to our communities and spend time with the loved ones who don’t live with us. This is excellent news for our overall wellbeing. Having healthy, quality interactions with others is a sure way to improve your mental health. Of course, sometimes things are easier said than done!

Re-emerging into the world after such an extended break can make socializing feel daunting. Understandably, many people of all ages and backgrounds are experiencing increased social anxiety.

Looking to increase community? Consider these opportunities. You can always start by doing one thing and then engaging in additional social activities when you feel more comfortable.

  • Plan to meet up with a friend for coffee or dinner
  • Join a local book club or walking group
  • See if there are any free classes on interesting topics that you can attend
  • Have a meaningful conversation with a co-worker (preferably one that isn’t work related)
Live in the moment.

So far in this article, we’ve spent a lot of time looking back. As we mentioned at the beginning, sometimes you have to look back to know what might be headed your way. This is true, and looking back in order to move forward is sometimes a crucial part of understanding and healing. However, spending too much time dwelling on the past can cause us to become stuck and can lead to feelings of frustration and depression.

You would think that the antidote to dwelling in the past would be looking to the future. And, yes, having something to look forward to in the future like a fun event, vacation, or the next installment in your favorite film series is always nice. However, spending too much time thinking about the future can also have a negative effect on your mental health. Since we can’t know what the future holds, trying to anticipate what will happen can cause an increase in worry and anxiety.

Since it’s best to limit time spent thinking about the past and the future, what can we do?

We can ground ourselves in the present moment by taking in what is happening around us and acknowledging how we are feeling in that moment.

Practicing mindfulness can help increase our ability to be in the moment. Not sure where to start? We have a workbook featuring 30 mindfulness activities to help you build a mindfulness practice.    

Listen to, take care of, and trust your body.

Our mental and physical health are inextricably linked. We often address them separately, and there are times when that is necessary. But, in general, it’s important to view them as two vital parts to one whole.

It’s usually pretty easy to recognize when we’re having a physical symptom. Frequent headaches, tense muscles, gastrointestinal issues, disrupted sleep or fatigue usually alert us that something is off. Mental health symptoms can be harder to recognize. But so often, our physical symptoms are the first sign of a mental health concern.

When it comes to managing your mental health, it is important to listen to your body. It is also important to take care of your body. We know that eating nourishing meals, participating in joyful exercise, and getting enough sleep are all important for our physical health. And, because we know that our physical and mental health are linked, we know that doing these things to keep our bodies feeling good will also work to maintain our mental health.

As we mentioned earlier, this is not the end of our story. The research shows that while we are collectively experiencing a mental health crisis, we are also resilient!  Now that we’ve looked at how the pandemic has affected mental health, we can take what we know and work together to heal and move forward.

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