How the Covid-19 Anniversary Might Mess With Your Head
It’s been a year since the U.S.’s first lockdowns. Disaster experts explain why that’s significant.
Today is March 8, 2021. But somewhere on the internet, there’s undoubtedly someone marking it as another date — March 373rd. Or is it 374th?
Honestly, I’ve lost track, which I guess is the entire joke.
For many in the United States, March 2020 was the month the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic first became apparent in their lives. It was when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to advise limiting group gatherings. The month bedrooms and living rooms transformed into makeshift schools and offices as the real versions were shuttered. By the end of that month, the U.S. was leading the world in confirmed cases of the virus, setting a tone the rest of the year would follow. As the meme goes, it was all March from that point.
Now it’s March again — for real this time — marking a year since Americans experienced that significant shift. That milestone has spawned another slate of memes, largely boiling down to the idea that the month’s arrival feels like an attack. Which, according to experts who study disasters and mental health, is pretty spot on — research on disaster anniversaries shows that heightened emotions tied to these dates are quite common. In other words, even if you’ve been living in a “March” haze for the past 12 months, this month might actually feel different.
“It’s a reminder of everything that happened the year before, so we absolutely see disaster anniversary reactions where people can be triggered by coming back up on that event,” explains Betty Lai, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology at Boston College. Lai studies how children and families respond to disasters, and she considers Covid-19 to be one since it is a “community-wide, large-scale, potentially traumatic event.”
There’s a chart in this field of research that chronicles six phases of a disaster, starting with the “pre-disaster” threat or warning, followed by the “impact” period Lai mentions, the subsequent phases of response, and, ultimately, “reconstruction.” This model points to the anniversary of the event as a potentially defining moment for the trajectory of those impacted, often a bridge between the “disillusionment” phase, in which survivors tend to hit their lowest moments, and that “reconstruction” phase, which is characterized by forward progress into recovery.
For some, these anniversary dates offer a moment to grieve and reflect — some closure — before moving forward into that final phase. For others, the rush of memories and increased media coverage can elicit mental health responses that can impede their progress, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress symptoms.
““I think many of us are going to feel like it just happened.”
Cinira Baldi offers her experience traveling to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi one year after it was shaken by a powerful earthquake as an example. Baldi, the vice president and chief development and communications officer of humanitarian organization Project HOPE, met with two sisters who were still struggling to process that devastating day. They recounted it to her as if it happened hours rather than months earlier.
“The memories are so raw, one of them told me she still sleeps outside because she’s afraid to sleep indoors,” Baldi says. “A year had passed for us, but for them, the pain and the fear are still there.”
She’s been thinking about that trip as March approaches.
“I think many of us are going to feel like it just happened,” she says.
Of course, for many people, the impacts of Covid-19 are still unfolding or even worsening, making it a particularly tricky anniversary. Lai believes that the pandemic is unique compared to disasters brought on by natural hazards, like hurricanes or wildfires, as the exposure has been ongoing rather than a single event. To put it bluntly: “It’s just all over the place at this stage,” says Regardt Ferreira, PhD, an associate professor at the Tulane School of Social Work and director of the school’s Disaster Resilience Leadership Academy. Because of that muddled timeline, he’s expecting the reactions to March to be quite mixed. While some might feel acutely impacted by the March anniversary, it might pass by relatively unnoticed by those who have either experienced little personal loss or are still in the thick of dealing with it.
To a degree, this dissonance is always true for disasters, which are well-documented to have disparate effects on populations based on factors like income, gender, and race. But psychiatrist Annelle Primm, MD, MPH, adds that, in addition to the ongoing nature of the pandemic, this year has had a number of “layering disasters” that carry their own emotional impacts and anniversaries. She cites the record hurricane and wildfire seasons, the economic devastation many families have faced, and the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which sparked protests in the summer of 2020.
“There are social determinants of health, like discrimination, exclusion, discriminatory housing patterns and educational resources, environmental racism — all of these things have been intensified and accentuated during Covid,” explains Primm, who is also the chair of the All Healer’s Mental Health Alliance, which helps facilitate culturally competent mental health support for disaster-struck communities. “I’m not diminishing the lineup of stressors for everyone in the country, I’m just pointing out that populations that have been marginalized have been experiencing even more than the average.”
Understanding, then, that March might be the first in a series of heavy anniversaries to come in 2021, there are some strategies that can provide comfort or at least make these days “a little softer,” according to Ferreira.
“Sometimes people feel worried that, ‘Oh I’m not having a normal reaction.’ But our research on disaster shows that there isn’t one normal reaction.”
Everyone I spoke with stressed the importance of finding ways to connect with your support system during this socially distanced time. While it might not be possible to have the sort of in-person remembrance ceremonies commonly held on disaster anniversaries, they recommend finding other ways to check in, whether it’s a call with loved ones, finding a community group on social media, or speaking with a professional (see below for some examples they recommend).
This is particularly important for those who lost a loved one and were not able to grieve as they normally would due to safety concerns. One Covid-safe way Ferreira suggests marking those anniversaries is to do something small in that person’s honor, such as making a donation to a cause they cared about or partaking in an activity they enjoyed.
For anyone, though, Baldi recommends limiting exposure to media that might prove unnecessarily upsetting (read: stop doomscrolling) and finding ways to stay busy on difficult dates.
“We have to get our head around this idea that this is just a moment in time,” she says. “Just focus on today and recognize this won’t be your life forever.”
Lai seconds these strategies for helping children cope, as well, emphasizing the importance of checking in with how they’re feeling and acknowledging that there will be a wide range of responses.
“Sometimes people feel worried that, ‘Oh I’m not having a normal reaction,’” she says, “But our research on disaster shows that there isn’t one normal reaction.”
For Mary McNaughton-Cassill, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, that’s a key takeaway — embracing how you feel, whether you think it’s “normal” or not. McNaughton-Cassill, who provides support for first responders and communities in the aftermath of disasters as a volunteer with the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, describes navigating these anniversaries in a healthy way as walking a “tightrope.” To find balance, you want to first create space to acknowledge your emotions without judgment, then find strategies to start coping with them.
As uncomfortable as it might feel in the midst of a painful day, she suggests trying to identify positive moments from the past year rather than just focusing on what was lost. It could be as big as recognizing that you’re stronger than you ever knew, that you can withstand a trying year that presented challenges on multiple fronts. It could be celebrating how a relationship has changed for the better, grown more resilient and supportive; celebrating progress on a hobby you’ve picked up, like puzzles or baking. Or it could be as small as scrolling through some of the 2020 memes that made you laugh and maybe even feel a little less alone.
If you are in need of support, here are a few resources these experts recommend: