The Pandemic is Improving. Why Are You Still So Miserable?

It’s okay if your mental health is not bouncing back. Here’s why.

Photo: valentinrussanov/Getty Images

At first, Lindsay Pearson felt hopeful. She was getting the Covid-19 vaccine, and case rates around the country were going down. The pandemic was, by many accounts, finally getting under control. Like many of us, Pearson, 23, who lives in Bakersfield, California, has had a miserable year — she has struggled with mental health problems her entire life, but being unable to work as an actress, her main creative and social outlet, made things so much worse. After Pearson got her first jab, she did feel some relief — until, suddenly, she didn’t. Her depression began to bear down on her harder than it had before. “It’s been a downward spiral,” she says. “I can’t help but feel a pervading sense of hopelessness all the time.”

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the pandemic right now is positive — as it should be. More than 62 million Americans have been fully vaccinated against the deadly virus we were all susceptible to one year ago. Although cases are once again rising, one-fifth as many people are dying from Covid-19 as they were in late January, one-third as many are hospitalized, and unemployment claims have fallen to a new pandemic low. Yet even so, many Americans aren’t feeling the relief they expected. In fact, according to the CDC, more Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression last month than they were in early September, when the pandemic outlook was far grislier. Why is this, what does it mean, and when will our collective pain finally ease up?

First, some reassurance: Mental health professionals say that it’s not at all surprising that people are still struggling. “If you’re at home and going, ‘I don’t feel emotionally fixed with a vaccine,’ or ‘I’m back to work and I don’t feel perfect’ — you shouldn’t. Healing takes time,” says Jessi Gold, MD, a psychiatrist at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine. “There’s a lot of healing that we haven’t done. We haven’t really grieved. We haven’t really processed it. I don’t think we’ve really felt all the feelings that need to be felt for the loss of everything.”

It’s not just that we haven’t had time to process everything that has happened — we also haven’t had the opportunity. Many of us have been focused on protecting and caring for our families, paying our bills, and, essentially, just staying alive. When we’re in survival mode, we often push our needs and feelings aside. “We often tend to work through it and bury it,” Gold says, and “what that does is suppress emotions until they become bigger and bigger.” Now, as some of our life-and-death concerns are easing, the time to deal with these feelings and losses has finally arrived.

Plus, we’re all tired and frayed. Sarah Lowe, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Yale School of Public Health who studies the mental health consequences of trauma, says it’s like when you push extra hard to meet a work deadline or study for an important exam. Afterwards, when you can finally relax a bit, you crash and come down with a terrible cold. With the pandemic, “we’ve all been in a bit of a fight or flight mode,” she says, and now “there’s a certain level of exhaustion,” which may bring on new symptoms.

Indeed, in some individuals, trauma symptoms have a delayed trajectory — they don’t show up in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but later, when we don’t expect them. This is something we readily accept when it comes to physical health problems, says Christine Yu Moutier, MD, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. When we develop high blood pressure, we don’t blame the salty french fries we ate yesterday, because we know that health conditions are multifactorial and can take a long time to develop. Likewise, Moutier says, we shouldn’t assume that our current mental health state reflects what happened to us last week. It, too, can be shaped by our experiences over a long period of time (not to mention our biology and hormones and all sorts of other things we can’t control).

Another reason people may be struggling now is because the supports we had throughout the pandemic are waning. Perhaps we were able to get financial assistance for a while, or our bosses granted us more flexible schedules — and now these life preservers are being taken away, even though we still need them. Or maybe we lost our jobs and were okay because we had savings stashed away, but those savings are now depleted. A 2008 study of Hurricane Katrina survivors found that PTSD symptoms, mental illnesses, and suicidal ideation were highest not immediately after the storm, but nearly two years later — perhaps in part because by then, the initial post-disaster supports and safety nets had been taken away.

We may also have benefited from a sense of cohesion among our family and community members during the pandemic that is now starting to drop. In the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, there is “a very natural sort of enhancement of resilience, almost like girding ourselves to survive and to support each other and to get through it together. And that is not a sustainable experience,” Moutier says. “Then it comes down with a sense of disillusionment. And even cynicism and anger and frustration and the opposite of community cohesion, where people are feeling more isolated and on their own.”

And what about the small silver linings of the pandemic that might get taken away from us soon? It’s reasonable to grieve those, too. “In between the moments of hope, I’ve begun to feel dread,” says Juliet, who asked that we not print her last name because she has a public-facing job. Although the pandemic has not been easy on her, Juliet has enjoyed working from home, wearing comfortable clothes all day, and not having to deal with rush hour traffic — and she shudders at the thought of having to manage those regular stressors again.

Lingering uncertainty about the future may be fueling symptoms of anxiety, too. “Just when you think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that light seems to dim,” says Jacy Topps-Chotas, 41, who lives in Queens, New York. “I worry if things will ever go back to the way they were. Will we need to be vaccinated again in a year? Will we ever feel comfortable being in large crowds? Will the job market bounce back for those who were already underemployed? With many countries in Europe going into another lockdown, there’s still so much uncertainty. It’s scary.”

So if you don’t feel okay right now, it’s completely understandable. “The first thing is to recognize that you’re not alone, that there are other people that are experiencing the symptoms or the feelings that you’re feeling,” says Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, the chief strategy officer for the Well Being Trust, a foundation that works to advance mental, social, and spiritual health. “We’re all in it together. And while some of us are going to experience things differently than others, there’s some level of connectivity in that we’ve all gone through something pretty traumatic.”

Still, there are steps you can take to help yourself. Self-care is one — try to find ways to do the things that make you feel better, whether that’s connecting with friends, taking walks, enjoying your favorite hobbies, exercising, or reading. Journaling can help, too. In a study published in the 1980s, researchers split college students into two groups. They asked one group to spend 15 minutes each day, four days a week, writing in a journal about their stressful experiences, and they told the other group to just do what they normally do. The students who journaled, the researchers found, were half as likely to visit the student health center over the next six months. Channing Davisson, a social work graduate student whose depression and anxiety has recently worsened, says one thing that has been helping her is the Pandemic Journaling Project, which is free and prompts people each week to discuss what they’re experiencing.

Consider, too, getting professional help. Demand for therapy is high now, so if you can’t find someone immediately, keep trying, Gold says, and put yourself on several wait lists. If you worry that you can’t afford it, this resource discusses no- and low-cost options. And if you are feeling extremely isolated or are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255, or text with a crisis counselor via the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 741741. If you’re worried about a loved one, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers free tips for talking with them and supporting them.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that mental health struggles are not a sign of weakness or lack of resilience. We have experienced a huge, long-lasting, collective trauma, and we all need time to heal. “We don’t always have to feel 100%, and that doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with us — that we’re broken, or in disrepair,” Miller says. “What it means is that we’re human.”

Science and parenting journalist. Author of HOW TO RAISE KIDS WHO AREN’T ASSHOLES. Sign up for my free parenting newsletter:

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