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After nearly two years away from friends and co-workers, people are struggling to readapt to their in-person lives. Our experts explain the mental health challenges this has caused and how to overcome them.
The coronavirus pandemic has swept through the world, leaving a range of issues in its wake. In particular, post-pandemic syndrome (PPS) is becoming a pervasive problem. A recent study (2021) conducted by the American Psychological Association reported that more than 45% of surveyed adults feel uncomfortable leaving their homes, even with the vaccine. Unfortunately, PPS seems to be a progressive condition, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety. In other words, the longer you leave it, the harder it will be to overcome.
We need to think of it as moving to a new city, not returning to our hometown.
Experts also refer to it as cave syndrome or re-entry syndrome. However, we believe these terms miss the pandemic-specific mark. For instance, re-entry syndrome refers to arctic explorers or war veterans who struggle to return to society. But, we are not returning to a world that continued in our absence. Instead, we are collectively moving into a new one. It will have remnants of our old normal merged with a fear of infection, remote work and countless other alterations. We need to think of it as moving to a new city, not returning to our hometown.
PPS is marked by various symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression. From our experience, the most common root causes include pre-existing mental health issues, trauma and loneliness.
For example, chronic loneliness will activate an avoidance mechanism in our brains that makes us less eager to see people. As a result, people may be struggling with an increased desire to be more reclusive. It can be a subtle mechanism that shows itself in situations where you feel excited to see your friends, but then when you finally do, you are surprisingly uncomfortable and nervous during the social interaction.
Chronic loneliness will activate an avoidance mechanism in our brains that makes us less eager to see people.
Combined with these stressors, the anxiety and fear caused by Covid-19 are powerful emotions that can change the way we think and act. For example, how many times have you watched a movie and felt taken aback when a character walks into a store without a mask or goes to a large social gathering? These reactions reflect what is going on in your brain. They show us that fear of infection has become so ingrained, it feels more normal to us than our previous lives. As a result, even if experts say it is safe to go outside, it will take our minds time to re-acclimatize to an environment recently deemed highly dangerous.
How many times have you watched a movie and felt taken aback when a character walks into a store without a mask or goes to a large social gathering? These reactions reflect what is going on in your brain.
Perhaps most worryingly, rates of anxiety and depression which can trigger PPS have skyrocketed. At Paracelsus Recovery, we have seen a 500% increase in referrals, and we expect these numbers to increase as the world re-opens. One reason for this is, as we near the end of the pandemic we can see how different we are today from the person we were in February 2020. This a painful realisation, and it can heighten our sense of dread, stress and anxiety about stepping out into the world.
Elderly people, those who have been shielding, anyone whose mental health has suffered and people struggling with long Covid, are all at an increased risk of developing PPS. However, the most at-risk group we see are those who caught the virus and infected loved ones who then passed away. In these cases, people are struggling with unbearable levels of guilt, shame and remorse. These feelings are challenging and they are impacting how people orient themselves in our new normal.
We are also seeing clients struggling with post-Covid anxiety, stress, insomnia and mood disorders such as depression. Fear and isolation play a substantial role in the development of these conditions. There is also some evidence to suggest the immense inflammatory response triggered by the virus plays a role in these long-term mental health effects.
The most at-risk group we see are those who caught the virus and infected loved ones who then passed away. In these cases, people are struggling with unbearable levels of guilt, shame and remorse. These feelings are challenging and they are impacting how people orient themselves in our new normal.
There are several ways you can ease your way into a post-pandemic world, including:
This therapeutic technique involves slowly re-introducing yourself into situations that cause distress. Try spending a set period of time outside your home every day, increasing the duration day by day. Each time you achieve your goal, reward yourself with a treat such as your favourite snack, movie or activity. You’ll then start to associate the outside world with positive emotions rather than fear.
Work out what is making you nervous, perhaps by journaling or reflecting on when and where you become anxious. Once you have identified the cause, try to develop a positive attitude to it. For example, imagine all the great activities you loved to do outside your home before the pandemic. Finally, visualise your goals and what you will accomplish once you leave your house.
If you are struggling with anxiety about in-person activities, tell someone close to you. Humans have always thrived in communities and feeling supported by our loved ones is crucial to create a sense of safety. It is a two-way street, when we are considerate of each other, we all feel more supported which increases resilience. So be thankful for support and offer it in return.
Above all, move at your own pace and remember that your feelings of fear are not unusual and you are not alone. If you are struggling to leave your home at all, or suffering the symptoms of a panic attack when you do — such as a racing heart, a sense of impending doom, chest pains or difficulty breathing — it is important to reach out for professional help as soon as you can.