Post-Vaccine, Your Body Is Safer, but Your Mind Can’t Catch Up
Vaccination offers protection against the viral threat, but your brain needs time to reset after a year living with the fear
Rachel Gersten is a licensed mental health and wellness counselor and, as she says, a believer in science. All throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, the co-founder of a New York–based wellness company followed official public health guidance on safe behavior and avoided illness. She’s on the other side of peak risk now because she is fully vaccinated. Even so, having reached this stage, the 34-year-old is experiencing dissonance: Gersten’s foundation in science tells her on an intellectual level that she’s largely protected from the coronavirus; emotionally, however, her brain can’t catch up.
“If you fall off a horse, you get back on,” she says. “I understand that, but in this case it’s tough to make the mental switch after a year of living in fear.”
Gersten will likely find herself in good company as more people get their shots. Although some may be ready to jump back into pre-pandemic lifestyles, many others will not. “For an entire year, our brains have operated in fight-or-flight mode,” says Annie Miller, LCSW-C, of Washington, D.C.–based D.C. Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy. “We’ve been programmed to sense being around people as a threat, and it’s only normal to be fearful of returning to that scenario.”
This dissonance doesn’t quite fit the clinical definition of PTSD, but it has shades of the disorder, says Steven Taylor, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. He co-authored a July 2020 study published in Depression & Anxiety that looked into five facets of Covid-related distress: fear of the disease, worry about its socioeconomic costs, xenophobic fears that foreigners are spreading the disease, traumatic stress symptoms associated with exposure to the virus, and compulsive reassurance checking, which involves repetitive, frequent checks to ensure you are virus-free.
“You don’t need to have experienced one particular traumatic event to experience this syndrome,” Taylor says. “Covid stress has been a long, pervasive event.”