The psychology of post-pandemic life – why you might feel anxious about coming back

Most people will be ‘exuberant’ about entering post-pandemic life, says author Steven Taylor The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the next global infectious disease outbreak.

For many, the pandemic has been a time of stress and isolation, and for some, worse – trauma and distress, especially if they had COVID-19 or lost someone to it.

Taylor estimates that about 20% of Canadians will need some form of clinical help for mental health issues after the pandemic. He called it a “massive” increase. (Submitted by Steven Taylor)

When some semblance of normal life returns, most people bounce back pretty quickly, Taylor said. But there is a significant minority who will feel the psychological impact of the pandemic long after restrictions are lifted.

As the third wave of COVID-19 in Canada slowly recedes and vaccination rates increase, there is growing confidence that within the next few months pandemic restrictions will begin to be lifted. In Quebec this week, for example, a timetable was unveiled for the gradual opening of the company.

“We’re adaptable, human beings…we’re like cockroaches,” said Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist in UBC’s department of psychiatry. Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The dose and the white coat, black art.

“We have survived countless pandemics. There have been about 20 pandemics in the last 200 years and we have survived them all. So most people will bounce back.”

Most of us will adapt quickly to life after the pandemic and the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, Taylor says, “just as people quickly adapted to wearing masks.” (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Some anxiety is normal

Initially, Taylor expects to see a range of reactions, from exuberance and “hypersociability” to anxiety, as people cautiously — or not so cautiously — return to normal lives.

Taylor said it’s normal to feel some apprehension about returning to our normal routines and increased social interaction. After all, we’ve been told that closeness to others carries risks for over a year.

He expects many people will go through an adjustment period when they feel anxious about things like sitting in a restaurant or going to a big sporting event.

His advice? Go at your own pace.

For some, returning to crowded spaces such as the Raptors games after the pandemic may cause anxiety. In this file photo from June 2, 2019, the field is lit up at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto before Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Raptors and Golden State Warriors. (The Associated Press)

In the days and weeks following the lifting of restrictions, Taylor said the majority of us will adjust to getting back to normal, just as most people quickly adapted to wearing masks.

“Cavern Syndrome”

For some, however, there can be a reluctance to leave their homes – something that has been dubbed “cave syndrome”. It’s not really a syndrome but rather a symptom of anxiety, depression or another mental illness, Taylor said.

“We are victims of our own success here. We have been encouraged through 2020 to make our confinement environment as comfortable and enjoyable as possible,” he said. “But afterwards it became more difficult for people to leave their homes.”

Some people may be reluctant to leave our homes after the pandemic is over, which has been dubbed the “cave syndrome”. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Taylor pointed to Wuhan, China, where some people remained locked down for months after restrictions were lifted because they felt unsafe, and said he expects that to happen here with a “minority” of people.

mental health crisis

For some Canadians, however, the mental health effects of the pandemic won’t improve without clinical help, Taylor said. This cohort includes:

  • People with a pre-pandemic mental health history whose mental health problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • People who have lost someone to COVID-19 and are grieving or depressed.
  • People who have been infected and hospitalized with COVID-19.

Taylor said they will need treatment for a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance abuse issues.

He admits it’s hard to know how many Canadians will need help. His educated guess is that “approximately 20% of Canadians will need or benefit from some sort of mental health counseling as a result of the pandemic.”

It represents a “massive” increase in demand on an already underfunded mental health system, he said.

According to Statistics Canadain 2018, 17.8% of Canadians aged 12 and older (about 5.3 million people) needed help for their mental health in the past year — and half of them had their needs partially met or completely unmet.

Statistics Canada figures show that Canadians are reporting higher levels of anxiety and an overall decline in mental health during the pandemic. Young Canadians are the most likely to report deterioration in their mental health. (Shutterstock)

“We didn’t have the resources to address mental health issues before the pandemic, and it will be even more difficult now.”

Demand will not be evenly distributed, Taylor said; those with the least financial resources are the most likely to have experienced stress and trauma during the pandemic.

Post-traumatic growth

There is, however, good news.

In a recent studyTaylor examined what is called post-traumatic growth during the pandemic.

It’s the idea that traumatic events and experiences can actually have positive effects on people – that lasting pain and suffering can lead to personal growth, and some of us come out of bad times stronger. .

The study, published in the Anxiety Disorders Diarysurveyed 893 people in Canada and the United States with high levels of COVID-related stress.

About 77% of participants reported moderate to high growth relative to COVID-19 in at least one of the following: greater appreciation of the value of life, greater appreciation of friends and family, change in priorities regarding what is important in life and a greater sense of autonomy.

Dr. Renée El-Gabalawy, associate professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Manitoba, is researching post-traumatic growth and “silver linings” during the pandemic. (Submitted by Renée El-Gabalawy)

This comes as no surprise Renée El-Gabalawy, associate professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Manitoba.

She is also studying post-traumatic growth during the pandemic. she surveyed about 1,000 Canadians last spring and early summer, and then 400 of the same people six months later.

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silver linings

El-Gabalawy, who is also director of the university’s health, anxiety and trauma laboratory, said she and her team asked respondents to describe the “silver linings” – if any – of the pandemic. Although the research is ongoing, which means the results have not yet been peer-reviewed, more than 85% of participants identified at least one good side.

These fell broadly into five different themes:

  1. Gift of time — the benefits of slowing down.
  2. Finding a new appreciation for what really matters – the importance of loved ones and social connections.
  3. Increased creativity and learning new ways to connect – Zoom calls with friends and family.
  4. Socio-cultural changes, such as increased care for the elderly and greater support for working from home.
  5. Positive health impacts, such as better hygiene, have resulted in children catching fewer diseases.

El-Gabalawy said post-traumatic growth usually occurs in those who experience a moderate level of stress.

A passenger arriving from Australia at Wellington International Airport hugs a loved one in Wellington, New Zealand, in April after travel between the two countries was allowed to resume. Canadians are more eager “just to be together again,” says psychologist Renée El-Gabalawy. (AP)

If you’re under extreme stress or trauma, it’s hard to experience growth, she said.

But on the other hand, those who experience negligible stress during an event like this will have equally poor post-traumatic growth.

“Really, that’s the transformative power of suffering. And so someone needs to suffer to some degree to really grow from that.”


Written and produced by Willow Smith.


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