Where’s Your Head At?
As we inch out of lockdown, there are a lot of feelings to contend with. Here’s why that’s okay.
Just a few months ago, sometime in mid-April, Canada went on a record-setting COVID-19 spree. The country reported more than 9,500 new infections in a single day. Nearly 1,400 people were in the ICU. In Ontario, where I live, an unprecedented number of patients were shuffled between hospitals to free up resources, landing in facilities as far as a three-hour drive away from home. The province extended lockdowns; schools shut down indefinitely. It snowed a bunch. Everything felt very bleak.
But we managed to bend the curve. A spike in vaccine supply meant provinces could lower the age of eligibility for first doses—and then accelerate the timeline for second shots. Daily cases in Ontario dropped into the low hundreds. British Columbia got rid of its indoor mask mandate; Alberta dispensed with its pandemic restrictions altogether. In June, Toronto reopened restaurant patios after seven months and, just weeks later, allowed indoor dining for the first time since March 2020.
Virus variants were rising and vaccination was, in certain demographics, levelling off. Canada was by no means back to normal—to say nothing of the rest of the world. But by this summer, it felt like it might be possible to start talking about normal again.
And then something curious happened: Just as I expected a huge cosmic weight to lift from my shoulders, I found myself feeling considerably worse. My capacity to focus on a single, discrete task tapped out at about seven minutes. (It’s taken me literal days to write these three paragraphs.) I’d wander into the kitchen for something—food, I imagine?—and then drum my fingers against the countertop, trying to remember why I was there. I was sad a lot of the time. And based on texts with friends and calls with actual neuroscientists, I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.
Across this pandemic, our brains have had to suppress a huge amount just to get us through the day. Ignore the fact that your kid is in the other room half-attending an online class. Ignore the giant pile of laundry taunting you from the bed in your makeshift office. Ignore the whines of a pandemic puppy or the startling bellow of your partner’s voice on every single Zoom. “You really are multi-tasking and inhibiting a lot more information than you would if you were going to the office, and you can only do that for so long,” says Natasha Rajah, CIHR Sex and Gender Chair in Neuroscience, Mental Health and Addiction and a professor at McGill. We had emotional and cognitive reserves at the start of the pandemic. Many of us were running on fumes by the end of the year. And now?
“Now we’re maxed out. I can say I personally would be happy to get back to some level of normalcy,” says Rajah, whose young daughter politely interrupted our call to ask for a cookie with Nutella. For the past year, Rajah says, we’ve been operating on a sort of autopilot: head down, plough through. Keep it together. Let the child have a 4 p.m. cookie. “But now that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we’re going to feel relief, but we are also going to finally have the chance to really start processing what we went through.” No, it wasn’t trench warfare. Yes, unlike during the 1918 influenza pandemic, Netflix exists. But what we went through—what we continue to go through—absolutely sucked. That’s why we might be struggling to come out of it.
Image: Nikki Ernst
Human beings are creatures of habit. Generally, we much prefer to function in a state of control and predictability. “That’s what keeps us comfortable; it’s what keeps us psychologically safe,” says Taslim Alani-Verjee, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Silm Centre for Mental Health in Toronto. The pandemic, of course, upended all that, and governments further unsettled us with protocol that could be, as she says, “a little flip-floppy.” Church services would be allowed in B.C. over Easter weekend—oh, wait, no, they wouldn’t. Outdoor playgrounds were off limits in Ontario—nope, never mind, play on.
“We couldn’t even know how to claim some control because we didn’t know what was allowed or not,” Alani-Verjee says. “Can you get together with people outside without a mask on, or can you not? Small group indoors, yes or no?” In the absence of clear, consistent guidelines from our leaders—who insisted that buying books in a shop with two other customers was perilous but cramming kids into a poorly ventilated classroom for six hours was totally fine—we had to make our own calculations for what seemed sensible and what felt safe. It’s exhausting to weigh those decisions, all day, every day, against our emotional needs, psychological bandwidth and tolerance for risk, especially when the consequences for getting it wrong are so high. That burden of individual responsibility fuelled more anxiety at a time when every single thing—eating, sleeping, grocery shopping, parenting, obtaining routine medical care—already took so much work.
“Under normal circumstances, stress and anxiety are quite helpful to us, because they help us know when there is a harmful threat and we need to act for our physical or emotional well-being,” Alani-Verjee says. But living on a knife’s edge of panic for a prolonged period of time robs us of our ability to distinguish between an actual threat and our day-to-day existence. And that ends up affecting our ability to sleep, focus, connect with people and to recall even the basic contours of what was said at yesterday’s morning meeting.
The reason, Rajah says, is that the perpetual background drone of stress and uncertainty interferes with our memory systems, as well as our cognitive control systems, the mechanisms that allow us to focus and stay on or switch between tasks. We have been trying to juggle so much under such unusual circumstances, and it’s terrifically overwhelming to our working memory and our attentional capacities. “That’s what causes the brain fog and distractibility that a lot of us feel,” Rajah says. “That’s the mental exhaustion.”
Then factor in the loss. Officially, more than 26,000 Canadians have died from COVID-19, but a recent Royal Society of Canada study found that the true tally could be twice as high, due to under-reported deaths, especially in lower-income and racialized communities. Princeton researchers calculated that each death leaves behind an average of nine close relatives: parents, siblings, spouses, children and grandchildren. “Grieving is not a simple thing: It can take a year or more to get accustomed to the idea of the loss of a loved one,” says Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s department of psychiatry and author of The Psychology of Pandemics. The disruption of funerals, shiva and other mourning rituals can make negotiating that grief harder still.
But Taylor points out that prolonged isolation, financial insecurity, and the total interruption of our social routines will produce a sense of sadness and loss as well. “You don’t need to feel guilty or self-critical, like, ‘I didn’t suffer, I didn’t experience a loss, so I have no reason for feeling so blue every day,’” he says. “You don’t have to go out and earn a mood disorder. The accumulation of these stresses has an impact.”
In fact, the accumulation of these stresses has a name, as well: adjustment disorder. Characterized by anxious or depressive symptoms that develop as a result of stressful—but not necessarily life-threatening—events, “adjustment disorder is the little brother or sister of post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Alain Brunet, a clinical psychologist at McGill University who studies the effects of traumatic stress on mental health. “Everyone knows it exists, but it’s never talked about.”
While early research suggests that roughly a third of patients who have had a severe case of COVID-19 and a quarter of all health-care workers will develop PTSD, Brunet suspects many more of us—“perhaps tenfold more”—are dealing with adjustment disorder. And all this euphoric talk of a Hot Vax Summer or rebooted Roaring Twenties can exacerbate these symptoms. Transitions are hard under the best of circumstances, and dining indoors or hitting up a concert may not seem like the best of circumstances, particularly after a year-plus of being told to fear crowded spaces and aerosol spread. Rajah acknowledges that struggling with melancholy as COVID-19 recedes in Canada might feel a little funny—but it’s definitely to be expected. “That’s why it’s important to be just as kind to yourself when transitioning out of the pandemic as you were when you transitioned in,” she says.
Let’s just get this bit out of the way now: Everyone I spoke with for this article assured me our pandemic brains will bounce back. “Our memory will improve; our cognition will improve,” Rajah promises. “I’m a big believer in the resilience and plasticity of the human brain.” Though it can feel like this virus has been with us for roughly six centuries, it’s somehow only been 18 months. “What I usually tell people is that we’ve had a lifetime of living in a certain way, so it takes us a significant time to learn different patterns,” Alani-Verjee says. “What we have on our sides right now is that the circumstances will change and the environment will change—and how we’re feeling is going to change as well.”
Not everyone will come out of this pandemic at the same speed. But the fact that we can’t declare some COVID-19 Armistice Day—where we put the threat behind us and go kiss strangers in the street—might actually work to our emotional advantage. “If there is that sort of declaration, we lose our ability to choose and negotiate with our family, friends and employers about what we do and don’t feel okay doing,” Alani-Verjee says. Gradually re-entering a world that shut down abruptly allows us to test drive our comfort levels.
And if you’re feeling apprehension? Or anger? Or sorrow? Or terror or vigilance or confusion or pain? That’s okay: Let yourself feel all of it. “There’s no such thing as unreasonable when it comes to our feelings,” Alani-Verjee says. “If we allow ourselves to be in touch with our feelings, then we can figure out what we want to do with them.” She concedes that when she recommends people journal, they tend to side-eye the suggestion, but she says it’s a good strategy for processing emotions.
If, however, “journalling is not your jam,” Alani-Verjee says, “then going for walks, cooking or dancing around can all unleash those feelings into the world.” If your mind is racing or you’re grappling with intrusive thoughts, meditation can offer considerable help. Alani-Verjee recommends just being very present in whatever you already do. The next time you’re in the shower, focus on the temperature of the water and how it feels on your skin. When your mind starts skidding elsewhere, bring it back to the smell of your shampoo.
And for the love of Pfizer, don’t be afraid to talk to people about what you’re going through. “When people talk to each other, when they give each other support, that makes times of crisis much more manageable,” says Brunet, who expects a significant majority of Canadians will rebound from adjustment disorders without professional help. While none of us will have navigated the pandemic in precisely the same way, this has at least been a global event. Individual trauma can be isolating; it can be stigmatizing. But Rajah swears we are all contending with COVID exhaustion and anguish and grief. I worried that this sort of collective experience would compound our own trauma. Rajah has a different take: It can help us let some of it go.
“Individual trauma is often negative, because you don’t feel you can talk about it and you don’t feel understood,” she says. “But the pandemic isn’t something that happened to you and not to other people. We are part of a larger community, and I think we’re better for it. I think we will heal faster as a result.”
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