The CDC estimates that only 49% of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. That means the virus is still very much a part of our reality, and with variants popping up that are more contagious and more deadly than the original COVID-19 strain, it’s understandable that people are taking extra precautions, staying masked up and continuing to social distance as the virus surges around the world.
With children under 12 and some immunocompromised adults unable to get vaccinated while schools prepare to open up without conditions in a few weeks, and with other unvaccinated adults choosing conspiracy theories or misinformation over vaccination as governments refuse to shut down or reinstate mask mandates, it’s no wonder that COVID anxiety is just as high during what was supposed to be our #ShotGirlSummer as it was at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.
“The reality is that we are in a pandemic and that [COVID] is contagious, and it’s a healthy response for people to be concerned,” Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, tells R29Unbothered. “But when we get to the level of heightened anxiety, it can impair people’s ability to function, and to do the things they need to do.”
Symptoms of COVID anxiety may be both mental and physical. Compulsive symptom-checking, testing and news-checking may be signs that COVID anxiety is becoming overwhelming. The inability to do vital things that involve contact with other people is another sign. “Some people feel incapable of going to the supermarket, but also [don’t feel] comfortable ordering food because they feel like something can get contaminated,” Dr. Thema says. These symptoms can be compounded in people who already have existing mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
Fortunately, it is possible to take steps to confront and manage this anxiety. The key is to take small steps and rank your challenges from least to most stressful. For example, Dr. Thema suggests starting with an outdoor walk where you may not have to interact with many people and gradually you can build up to more challenging activities. “You want to try to give your body and mind relaxation,” she says. “Some therapists use trauma-informed yoga, because there is stress that we hold in our bodies; some yoga teachers use it as well. And so whether [it’s] dancing, yoga, [or] walking, all of these types of movements can help to relieve some of the anxiety as well.”
For people who are interested in interacting with the outside world again but are still feeling anxiety, Dr. Thema suggests that, once safety measures are taken, it is alright to negotiate activities. She says, “It’s important to look at the safety recommendations and take those precautions to say, ‘while nothing is 100% guaranteed [to be completely safe], I have lowered risk, because I am vaccinated and because I’m wearing my mask, and it feels more comfortable [for me] that I’m doing things that are primarily outdoors or with less people involved.’”
When we are doing all we can to stay safe, it can be difficult to feel safe around family and friends who aren’t taking COVID as seriously. In those situations, Dr. Thema says it is important to establish boundaries. People who aren’t comfortable attending social events, can go for “lower-risk engagement[s],” she says: instead of spending the day at a gathering—like an all-day birthday party, wedding, or baby shower— you can drop off a gift.
When it comes to dealing with loved ones who do not consider COVID to be a serious issue, Dr. Thema emphasizes that it is important for those loved ones to treat you with respect regarding how you decide to interact with them, even if it means limiting your in-person contact. She says, “it really is important for us to all be compassionate with each other. And because we can get in a very, not only anxious place, but [we] can be controlling and can interpret people’s behavior, we can take it personally. So if you’re having an event, some people may say, ‘Oh, I’m going to have a cookout,’ and then get offended if some people aren’t comfortable coming. And it becomes, ‘this person doesn’t care about me,’ or ‘this person is not a good friend or relative,’ versus ‘even though I feel comfortable, they don’t feel comfortable.’ And I don’t have to have a judgement about that, right? I can have compassion. And so it’s important for us to give each other grace and compassion, instead of thinking, ‘they need to think about it my way or do it my way.’
Reaching out to a mental health professional can also be an effective way to tackle anxiety, especially if you feel that you are alone in your worries. “Caution and concern are a healthy response. If you are feeling overwhelmed, physically and psychologically, then it’s important to consider reaching out for support. You can consider talking to a mental health professional, you can get some self help books, you can try to do meditation and prayer. So there are activities to help with the anxiety on your own,” Dr. Thema says, “but you don’t have to suffer by yourself.”
Ultimately, Dr. Thema says it is important to remember that this stress is “understandable, but when it is overwhelming, you deserve care and support.” We’ll make it through, but it’ll take time and deliberate effort.
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