In England and across the world, a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 infections is becoming more and more evident every day. We’ve known since the first wave that this was a possibility. Nevertheless, seeing the number of cases rocket once more is triggering my anxiety. And I’m not alone. So what impact does the prospect of a second wave have on mental health, and how can we cope with it?
Anxiety is an understandable response to the global situation.
The pandemic has been rough on my mental health. As someone who has experienced depression and anxiety for several years, finding myself in ‘unprecedented times’ was not exactly a welcome development. A few months on, the increased likelihood of a second wave is coming at a point where I’ve only just regained a sense of normalcy. For the first time since March, I’ve been regularly seeing my partner again. To have that put back on pause is an upsetting possibility.
Then there is my dwindling trust in the government’s ability to deal with the pandemic. My trust was hardly high at the start of the pandemic. But several months in, I find myself alternating between anger, despair, and feeling numb towards the government’s continued incompetence, hypocrisy and gaslighting.
Numerous studies are highlighting the deterioration of mental health during the first wave. Alongside fearing for the physical health of ourselves and our loved ones, lockdown and social distancing measures left people lonely and isolated from their usual support systems. Gone were the coffee dates with friends and conversations with course-mates that I took for granted. When you’re stuck at home with few distractions, anxious thoughts can easily overwhelm you.
Intersectional dynamics affect people’s pandemic experiences. Race and gender shape everything from the risk of infection to the ability to work at home undisturbed by caring responsibilities. Depending on your class and employment status, economic disruptions are going to have different personal implications. Considering what we know about the first wave, it’s no wonder that a second wave is an anxious prospect for many.
Then there’s the fear that this second wave might be different for all the wrong reasons. During the first wave, there was a sense that life would get better if we all did our bit. It’s hard not to feel disillusioned at the prospect of another wave. Depending on timing, it has the potential to combine with typical winter health issues and overwhelm a struggling NHS. Those prone to Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter months are likely to be worse off with their mental health than they were during the summer lockdown.
But how can we cope with anxiety about a ‘second wave’?
Well, the biggest advice I have from therapy and my own experience is working on your perspective and your support mechanisms.
First, remember that we survived the first wave and initial lockdown. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, we are now better equipped with resources and procedures to respond to spikes in cases – both as a society and as individuals. Give yourself some credit for mentally making it through before. Try to recall, what coping mechanisms did and didn’t work for you the first time around? Take that as a starting point for planning how to care for yourself if a second wave hits.
What didn’t work for me was trying to stay informed and switched on 24/7. At times it feels irresponsible not to monitor every single development. But that’s an unhealthy and unrealistic expectation to place on yourself. Even if you were to skip sleep and spend all your time switching through different news feeds, you would never be completely in the know. So I’m setting myself down-times from social media and the news. To prevent information overload, I am relying only on 2-3 trusted news sources. Also, I have muted all coronavirus-related terms from my social media timelines.
Establishing down-time brings me to my second suggestion: developing a routine. This is especially relevant to those of us without standard work or educational schedules. For instance, I no longer have university work structuring my life. My job is remote with flexible hours. But I maintain a consistent sleep schedule and have meals and breaks at roughly the same time each day. This, along with setting weekly/monthly targets, gives my life a sense of structure and normality. Having small and realistic goals avoids unnecessary stress or guilt; you’re not going to have the same productivity or mental energy during a global pandemic as you had before. Take pride in small accomplishments, like finishing a paragraph or remembering to call your friend back.
Focusing the mind on the present is another valuable practice. With times like these, there’s no way to predict what the future has in store beyond the next few days. Rather than sifting through endless what-ifs, take the situation one day at a time. Activities that ground you in the present are valuable – especially those that are physically or creatively engaging (e.g. walking, sketching, gardening). Journalling is a great way to get out pent-up emotions and reflect on your thoughts and feelings. I usually combine it with noting down things that I’m grateful for. It’s a healthy way of acknowledging the positive things about my situation that sways me from feelings of pandemic guilt.
Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of isolating yourself from your support networks. If you haven’t connected with a friend in a while, be the first to reach out. Chances are that they have been too overwhelmed or distracted by the current situation to remember to engage, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate you making the first move. If a physical (socially distanced) meetup isn’t possible, and texting or Zooming isn’t your thing, there are other methods. During the first national lockdown, my friend and I wrote each other letters with drawings and photographs included. Whenever I feel lonely or sad, I go back and re-read them.
Do you have any tips for coping with anxiety (pandemic-driven or otherwise)? Please share them by leaving a comment down below.
Photo courtesy of Adam Niescioruk