Transition out of COVID-19 pandemic impacting mental health: Here’s how to help

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RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As more individuals receive the COVID-19 vaccine and infection rates decline, the U.S. seems to be approaching a so-called “new normal.” But for some, this change could come with its own set of issues, much like the initial mental health issues reported at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Psychology Department Professor and Chair Dr. Michael Southam-Gerow, it will take time for individuals to form new habits as coronavirus-related restrictions are lifted.

“We all started, in the pandemic, to find ways to build a routine in. So a routine is what helps us feel anchored and better, and so we got used to logging onto Zoom and figuring out how to contact people with FaceTime, or whatever little ways that we could stay connected,” Southam-Gerow said. “I think of this next six months or so as this transition period, where we’re going to have to figure out how to be together again.”

Southam-Gerow said that the time it will take individuals to adjust to a “new normal” is dependent on their level of anxiety.

“If you’re an anxious person by nature, this is going to be much harder,” he said.

According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 40 million adults throughout the country ages 18 years and older. Nearly one-half of those diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

“The pandemic, it reinforced some people’s natural tendency to be afraid of things, and so COVID was a pretty terrifying experience because it was this invisible thing, you couldn’t see it, but it could make you super sick and it could kill you,” Southam-Gerow said. “If you’re not socially anxious, be good to those who are.”

The challenge, Southam-Gerow said, is that new habits have been developed over the course of the coronavirus pandemic to evolve with health and safety measures, which are now changing again.

“Staying in is going to be one of the challenges we have, is encouraging people to go back out and not just go out to drink, but to go out and be with people,” he said. “We really grow best in relationships with each other, and we grow best when we challenge each other.”

Southam-Gerow said that those who preferred the controllability of video chats as opposed to face-to-face interactions might have trouble adjusting back to being physically in front of people, especially for those who are unsure whether to remove their mask, regardless of vaccination status.

“There’s going to be a lot of this weird dancing we do in public,” Southam-Gerow said. “That same dancing, we’re going to do around physical space.”

He said that individuals will have to readjust to being closer than six feet away from people and not having a mask or plexiglass barrier to separate them.

“I think we’re going to be more hesitant,” Southam-Gerow said. “We’re going to go a little slower about it because we don’t really know — the pandemic’s not over.”

However, Southam-Gerow also expects individuals to have a newfound appreciation for things they might not have been able to do during the pandemic.

“I think we’re going to be a little more intimate with each other now,” he said. “We have all lived through this common experience, and so we understand — we learned a lot about each other in the pandemic about where we live and our kids barge in or our dogs bark or we have to get up and get a snack, or something like that. There’s a certain intimacy that this thing has created for us that’s probably going to be nice when we get back together.”

To make the transition into a society with fewer coronavirus-related restrictions less challenging all around, Southam-Gerow said that it’s important to face fears.

“If you’re afraid of it but it’s not going to hurt you, then if you do it, the more you do it, the less anxiety you’re going to have,” he said.

This applies especially to social situations, where individuals might be nervous to go out after not being able to do so for several months.

“Start small and build,” Southam-Gerow said. “Don’t go to a 50-person party. Start with just hanging out with your friends.”

Small-group gatherings can also help combat negative self-talk, he said.

“When you’re alone a lot, you’re spending a lot of time alone with yourself, which, you’re your own best friend, that’s awesome. But if you have some challenges with yourself, if you have a tendency to be mean to yourself, which a lot of us do, then you can kind of get stuck with the same messages,” Southam-Gerow said. “Look for counter evidence, or look for evidence on the other side of it. Let’s balance out some of those negative thoughts with some more cheerful ones.”

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