The coronavirus pandemic will end. But it won’t end in a decisive moment with bells ringing, horns blaring and dancing in the streets — as marked Victory in Europe Day 75 years ago this past May 8. The endgame of the pandemic is likely to be a drawn-out affair. We won’t be eradicating the virus itself so much as we’ll be eradicating the conditions that are hospitable to it. That will happen when we have an effective vaccine that can be administered to every human being and, over time, will eliminate the disease, as with smallpox. The virus may reappear seasonally and require revaccination for a modified strain, as with the flu, but most epidemiologists expect that it will be in a less virulent form and cause less social upheaval than we are currently experiencing.
So, the coronavirus is likely to be with us for some time and may never disappear entirely. What then of the havoc wreaked by this pathogen? How do we recover from the damage and destruction to our physical and mental health, to our economic well-being, to our social fabric, to every aspect of our lives? Millions have suffered grievous personal loss and all have suffered the loss of a way of life that may not be resurrected in familiar form. “Returning to normal life” as we knew it may not be a useful concept. Surely, we’ll be able to hug our grandchildren, shop for groceries and earn a living, but what will work look like? Will we be going to a restaurant for dinner? To the movies? To a ballgame? The future is wildly uncertain and, as the reality of that uncertainty sinks in, it exacerbates the emotional toll already taken by fear, anxiety and grief.
Just as the scale of the trauma inflicted by this outbreak has been unprecedented, it could leave millions of people wrestling with long-lasting psychological effects. Those who have lost loved ones and been devastated financially will be most susceptible to long-lasting trauma, though for most of us, anxiety and fear will outlast the immediate danger and prolong social and economic recovery. Many people will need professional help to see them through and we will all need strategies — both now and for the foreseeable future — for coping with ongoing emotional strains. Here are some suggestions:
Consider limiting your exposure to news and social media: We must stay informed but constant updates and monitoring feeds rather than alleviates anxiety. Consider checking in once a day at a set time. To avoid misinformation and sensationalized coverage that will be confusing and frightening, stick to trusted sources like the CDC and your local public health authorities. Limit what you share with others to information that you’ve verified.
Stay in touch with friends and family: Social distancing and self-isolation make us feel disconnected and can heighten anxiety and depression. Consider scheduling regular chats that take advantage of technology. Seeing familiar faces on Skype, FaceTime, or Zoom can do wonders for your state of mind. Find things to talk and laugh about that take your mind off the coronavirus. Stay away from people who are overcritical or who reinforce your fears.
Take control of what you can control: Avoid focusing on questions that have no answers or circumstances that are beyond your control. You can’t control the virus outbreak but you can take steps to reduce your own risk. Follow guidelines from the CDC and your local authorities. Keep your life in order: Get dressed every day. Make the bed. Prepare and eat healthy meals.
Exercise: Practice stress relief activities like meditation or yoga. Getting plenty of sleep will boost your immune system.
Do something for someone else: Focusing on the needs of others, especially those in need, is good for them, good for your community and good for you. Much of the stress of living through these times is the feeling of powerlessness. Helping others helps you feel in control and gives you a sense of purpose. Is there an elderly or disabled neighbor you can check on? Deliver groceries for? A food bank you can donate to? Local social organizations may have suggestions on how you can help.
There may be ways in which this will be a better world for having gone through this. Already, communities are finding ways to bring us together even as we stay apart. Businesses and other institutions can be remarkably creative in devising flexible policies that better support working parents, the disabled and health-care needs. We have come to appreciate the contributions of many who have been overlooked and underpaid. We may emerge from this crisis a better prepared, more just and equal society, one that truly values the common good.
Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., is a New York City-based psychotherapist. For more, visit drdanadorfman.com.