Unclenching From COVID

April 23, 2021 4 min read

I hugged my eldest daughter for the first time since the pandemic began and surprised myself when I burst into tears. I had not realized what emotions lay just below the surface. I also cried when I scheduled my COVID-19 vaccination, overwhelmed by what the inoculation implied. I'm hearing similar reactions from others. As the world begins to unclench from COVID-19, a wide range of emotions are surfacing.

Scientists predicted that the pandemic would exacerbate preexisting mental health conditions, and that has proven to be true. However, Dr. Erin Berman, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, says, "What we missed was that, in general, there's a marked increase of anxiety, depression, and PTSD in people who did not have pre-existing conditions."

My emotional responses may not warrant a formal diagnosis, but as a country — as a world, really — we have all experienced various levels of trauma during this pandemic. Plus, our familiar comforts were forbidden. Trauma of loss deepened through Zoom memorials and medical isolation. Usually, we sit bedside and hold our loved one's hand, and when someone dies, we gather for support and find comfort in a hug.

It's not even enough to survive COVID-19. Survivors also face potential chronic illness.

Racial and socioeconomic inequities rooted in a historically abusive relationship with medicine and access to care are underscored by the digital divide for our most vulnerable populations. According to Inequality.org, lack of internet access makes it harder to secure vaccine appointments or televisits with caregivers limiting in-person visits.

Unemployment and the loss of small businesses has impacted a staggering number of people.

We have all been on guard, because that's what the coronavirus has required of us — to be vigilant. Berman says, "We have been in a prolonged fight, flight, or freeze response mode." In some regards, this has allowed us to function. Anxiety gives us tunnel vision to put our heads down and cope in the moment. But Berman also stresses that "this internal mechanism is really supposed to be short-lived," and we have been clenched down under pandemic stress for over a year now.

Vaccines are beginning to give us some relief, and though we're not through this yet, we are beginning to feel a collective unclenching. Each of us will respond to this differently. Berman cautions, "Some people are going to have panic attacks and some people are going to hug and cry." Others, like many of our essential workers on the front lines, may need ongoing, professional support.

We will all surely feel a flood of emotions as the world unclenches, and for a while, we will be processing what this means going forward as a society. But, we cannot deal with it until we name it, so I want to put my finger on this feeling. I want to lean in to those post-vaccination safe hugs, allow myself to fall apart in loving arms and hopefully begin to recover from this awful year.

Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a wife, mother and award-winning columnist. She is the media director of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Find her on social media @WriterBonnie, or email her at [email protected] To find out more about Bonnie Jean Feldkamp and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: educadormarcossv at Pixabay

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