These have been difficult times; a once-in-a-century pandemic, democracy, our government whose trust we once held sacred shaken to its foundation, climate change, cyberattacks and threats of more to come, and world migration the likes we’ve never seen before. So much all at one time. Some see in it apocalyptic visions that the end is near. Others view this time of upheaval as a cyclical cleanse as did the ancient Greek cosmologist, Empedocles, who viewed existence as an eternal oscillation between chaos and harmony in accord with the forces of love and strife.
While we currently remain in the midst of these changes in the world, including the pandemic, here in the United States, there is a general sigh of relief and hopeful anticipation, thanks to the wealth of our nation and a concerted effort on the part of this administration, that we are beginning to return to normal. It was a little over a year ago (Coronavirus pandemic anxiety and how to manage it, May 3, 2020), I wrote my blog about how this new and dreadful virus was impacting our erstwhile familiar sense of security.
So, how are we doing? The answer is not so simple as it appears that it depends on who you talk to. While our economy, especially the service sector, was devastated, our government helped ease its effects with loans, unemployment checks, and moratoriums on rent. And in addition to the tragic loss of well over half a million lives here in the U.S., many who have contracted the virus have suffered prolonged effects of the illness that may include fatigue, brain fog, persistent cough, painful joints and muscles, headaches, loss of taste or smell, or a panoply of symptoms known as multisystem inflammation syndrome.
Perhaps the most enduring impact the pandemic has had on the human race has been on our mental well-being. How it has affected each and every one of us depends on many factors, the pre-existing stresses in our lives, whether we lost friends or family, how it affected our jobs, businesses, or income. Here are some of the ways it has affected us and how people have coped with this crisis differently:
(1) The Great Renewal: A Wall Street Journal article, published May 30, 2021, titled, The Great American Reunion, describes the exhilaration and relief families, friends, and co-workers have felt as the restrictions with the abatement of the pandemic have slowly lifted. Some talk about a renewed appreciation of life, the people they love and a deeper appreciation of life and gratitude for our health and blessings.
(2) Anxiety, Doom, and Gloom: As of mid-May this year, nearly a third of Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, according to a study cited by Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times, June 1, compared to 11% in November 2019. In March of this year, the American Psychoanalytic Association identified a shared global response to the pandemic they call PTSE (Pandemic Trauma and Stress Experience) that consists of a host of different kinds of psychological effects the pandemic has had on people having to adapt to a life filled with uncertainty, loss, and fear. Symptoms of PTSE may include fear of contagion or passing it to others, worry about the future, fear of strangers or violence, hypervigilance to loss, injury, or illness, fears of dying alone or of isolation. Some of my patients have been coming in with frightening dreams or fantasies of being burglarized, assaulted or victimized by ransomware cyberattacks. Rather than dismissing these apprehensions as neurotic distortions, my response is to reassure them their fears are grounded in reality, the perils we have been faced with recently and continue to face, and how to find solace and gratitude within this maelstrom of real concern.
(3) Languishing: Some of the patients I see in my practice have described a paradoxical calm as a result of the forced suspension of everyday life the pandemic has imposed on us. Some have felt a relief from the demands of social and family obligations. Others, such as those who suffer from depression or social anxiety reported feeling a greater sense of belonging as the isolation the pandemic had been imposed on us created a shared experience albeit for different reasons. Conversely, a return to normal has brought back the acute sense of loneliness and anxiety for those who have been constrained by their emotional difficulties while for others a degree of dread of the bustle tempers the joy of reconnecting with family, friends, and work.
“I have gotten acclimated to a different existence,” proclaims Tim Kreider, writer and columnist for The Atlantic in his article published May 30, 2021, titled, I’m not scared to reenter society. I’m just not sure I want to. Kreider compares his experience in the pandemic to Thomas Mann’s classic novel, The Magic Mountain, in which the protagonist, Hans Castorp, whose intention to visit a relative in a tuberculosis sanitarium for only a few weeks eventuates into a timeless lingering for seven long years. Kreider ponders what insidious lure of indolence living within the confines of a pandemic's bubble can breed. His essay begins as a reflection on the effects that the pandemic’s extraordinary constraints can have both on one’s daily life and mental state. It evolves, however, into a philosophical musing that reexamines the ethics of ambition and industriousness contra laziness and lotus-eating. As such, the message implied in the title of Kreider's article becomes clear, the confining experience imposed by the suspension of time may be transformative when we realize what may be gained by being liberated from the less transparent constraints of daily life. While I have encouraged, for good reason, many of my patients engage with family and friends and to create structure in their daily lives to offset the disorienting and isolating effects of the pandemic, there is wisdom to Kreider’s insights not to allow these necessities of life to control our lives.
It has been some time since I wrote my first blog on the effects the pandemic has had on us, our daily lives, and the dissolution of our basic sense of security. For me, personally, it has been a test of endurance of isolation to create hope, purpose, and connection that at the same time helped me manage my anxiety. Sometimes it worked better than other times. The pandemic has affected each of us in different ways, either from different circumstances or by virtue of how each of us copes with crises and stress. If, however, we can accept how deeply it has affected us, the pandemic may become more than an ordeal of fear, loneliness, and intimate encounter with the fragility of life itself. We may instead use this opportunity to strengthen our bonds, listen and respond more acutely to the urgent calls of this endangered yet resilient planet, and become more discerning and proactive about setting priorities that should govern how we live. It is our choice to make.
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Robert Hamm Ph.D