In the beginning, it didn’t seem like a serious threat. Early warning cries deteriorated into silence. It seemed too far away for me to be concerned. And then, suddenly, it was too late. With remarkable agility the unseen hitchhiker travelled the globe. My feelings of insecurity intensified as it drew near. A first encounter with pandemic stress and the ensuing psychological struggle to adapt to an invisible terror disinterested in human health or wellbeing.

COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus. We don’t know a lot about it. It affects different people in different ways. I might be asymptomatic (display no symptoms) but contagious and transmit the disease to others. I might experience mild or moderate symptoms then make a full recovery. I might experience severe symptoms and become a “long hauler” enduring a variety of unexpected symptoms over several months. I might have a pre-existing condition or be older and be at higher risk of death.

We now know that COVID-19 is more than a respiratory illness like the common cold or flu. It may damage other organs. It may attack the central nervous system and affect the brain. And it may leave permanent damage in it wake.  In other words, COVID-19 may completely change your life.

The individual and collective psychological distress inflicted by COVID-19 is overwhelming. With breathtaking ease, it annihilates the comfort of the familiar. It conjures fear and aggravates the fight or flight response. It infuses normal patterns of living with doubt. It injects ambiguity into daily routines and activities. Strangers become vectors of infection. It slows time down by aggravating our desire to be somewhere other than the here and now. It aggravates pre-existing mental health conditions. And it floods our life space with uncertainty.

In a deep sense, COVID-19 provokes a confrontation with mortality. The virus is novel and so is the fear I experience. I am not used to being hunted, nor used to being prey. Too often, I assume there is an invisible threat is lurking nearby. I am unusually alert moving through public spaces. In the early days, I felt completely unprepared. Powerless. Helpless.

The stress of the pandemic clarifies the essence of humility. Relative to the full force of life, I am insignificant. It reminds me that life will not proceed according to my expectations. I am entitled to nothing at all. Most of my course in life is out of my control. What we call a “life course” is really an ongoing conversation with reality, a dialogue with the external world, and adaptation to the unexpected. My time here is a privilege, not a right. And living for an imagined future is a failure to live because I would be pursuing something that never arrives. So why take myself so seriously?

COVID-19 conjures a unique vocabulary. An infected person must self-isolate to reduce transmission while aggravating feelings of loneliness and abandonment. We go into lockdown, stay at home, practice physical distancing, maintain social bubbles, and wear masks in public. We shut down public spaces that allow the virus to spread. We sanitize every interaction. We hyper-localize our life space. We seek continuity in a WFH (word from home), delivery, take-out, and curbside economy. And we suffer the burden of populism, conspiracy theories, misguided activism, racism, violence, disinformation, and lies spread by those unable to find a way to join the human race.

Isolation aggravates the signs and symptoms of pandemic stress. It may lead to brain fog, a state in which concentration and creativity are muted. I had all kinds of plans to use the isolation imposed by COVID-19 produce creative work. Most of it never happened. I was mired on a threshold between doing and not doing. The feeling of brain fog is daunting, but it’s a protective response to an overwhelming situation. The value of brain fog is that it encourages stillness and silence. It is an invitation to wait and grant the mind time to adapt.

Loneliness is another problem child of isolation. It conjures potent feelings of abandonment, dislocation, and exile. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem for the elderly, especially those that live alone or in a nursing home. Loneliness is a source of physical and mental suffering at any age or stage of life. Human beings a re meaning-making creatures. The creation of meaning originates in relationship, interaction, and participation with the world. If we are to find value in pandemic stress, the alleviation of loneliness in the world would be a significant step toward improved mental health.

My own journey into pandemic stress has evolved from obsessive research and reassurance seeking, through a period avoiding it, finally arriving at the need for a genuine confrontation with reality. Ironically, it took me several months to do what I always knew I needed to do, and that is to turn directly into the full force of COVID-19 and begin the conversation.

Engaging in a genuine and honest conversation with reality is a crucial step toward better mental health. It doesn’t always feel good, nor does it need to. The conversation may expose me to realities I may attempt to retreat from because the conversation will always force me outside of my comfort zone. But there is more of a locus of control within me now. It’s still under-developed, child-like, and fragile, but it offers a tiny space in which I can better craft my reactions and responses to an overwhelming situation.

Notes

  1. This article explores some of my psychological challenges COVID-19. The collective mental health consequences of the pandemic are significant. We need to share our stories and help one another.
  2. Anxiety is a lifelong companion of mine and pandemic stress has aggravated it. What has helped me to confront it is to seek a genuine “locus of control” in my mind. This process always circles back on learning to control my responses and reactions to stressful situations while acknowledging and accepting that which is out of my control.
  3. The article that inspired this post is COVID stress syndrome: 5 ways the pandemic is affecting mental health by Gordon Asmundson. This article provides a good overview of COVID-19 Stress Syndrome.
  4. Reliable resources and information about COVID-19 can be challenging to find. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) are two reliable resources.