Feel Like You Are on the Coronacoaster? You're Not Alone
Suggestions for how to manage the emotional ups and downs of the pandemic
Baking cookies in the kitchen with my 16-year-old son, I was struck by an intense feeling of gratitude. Usually, he would be too busy on a Thursday afternoon to hang out and bake with his Mom.
But because of the pandemic and social distancing rules, my son, his two older sisters and my husband have all been home a lot more. In that moment, I felt so appreciative of all the time we have gotten to spend together these past few months.
However, the very next day, I found myself crying in my car. I had just dropped my son at his high school (non-contact) soccer practice. Seeing him and his peers masked up and waiting for their temperature check before they could play together (but six-feet-apart) made me so sad.
I wished life could go back to normal.
Welcome to the "coronacoaster," the word created to describe the ups and downs of your mood during the pandemic.
It’s an Unprecedented Time
We keep hearing the word "unprecedented" to describe what has happened in the last few months, and it’s true.
As of August 10, more than 160,000 people in the United States have died of the coronavirus. The economy shrank 9.5% from April through June. Additionally there has been social unrest, worldwide protests and a contentious political election gearing up.
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It’s a lot to take in and it makes sense that people would be on edge.
Now add in all the daily changes that have occurred. The pandemic has caused schools, offices, stores and restaurants to either close or alter the way they do business. People have been asked to avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing.
David Elesh, emeritus professor of sociology at Temple University, stated in a March 22 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer, “At no time in the history of America have people been asked to shut down their normal day-to-day lives and convert them as radically as we are being asked.”
According to a quote circulating on the internet by an unknown author, "We are all in the same storm but different boats."
It makes sense that people would be experiencing mood fluctuations and increased anxiety.
Joan T. Magill, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., says: “We human beings like to feel comfortable by feeling in charge of our lives. Being in charge usually means we have a regular pattern with which we are familiar.”
It’s Not Necessarily All Bad
So, it sounds like everything is gloomy and there is no reason to be optimistic? Not necessarily.
Many people have been able to look at the bright side of this challenging situation. They have used staying-at-home as a chance to hit "pause" and reflect on their lives.
"Some are determining that they want to alter how they approach their work life. Others are noticing good things about relationships they want to make a permanent part of life and others are still developing interests, hobbies or routines which they'd never considered before sequestration,” says Magill.
Same Storm, Different Boats
According to a quote circulating on the Internet by an unknown author, "We are all in the same storm but different boats."
Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “Personology” podcast from iHeartRadio, explains, "We are not in this together. Some people have lost a lot more than others. They have had family members die. Essential workers have had to continue doing their jobs, putting themselves and families at high risk of getting sick. If you have pre-existing health conditions or an unstable home environment or lost your job and are having financial issues, your perspective will be very different. It easier to live in denial of the severity of the circumstances if you haven't directly had the worst happen."
Even if you have gotten through the last few months relatively unscathed, it's still likely you experienced emotional ups and downs.
Magill says, "Mental state and one's perceptions are what is critically important."
Everyone has different coping skills, anxiety levels and the ability to delay gratification, which can play a role in how we view the situation.
Quarantine Fatigue Has Set In
Another issue causing emotions to fluctuate is the “quarantine fatigue” many are experiencing.
Saltz says, "At the beginning of the pandemic, people were fearful. They were willing to do what they were told to stay safe. They rationalized that in a month or two, things would go back to normal."
They tried to embrace being home, watching Netflix and cooking, because they thought the situation was temporary.
One way to feel more secure is to acknowledge there will be (emotional) ups and downs and twists and turns as we move forward.
But months later, it’s gotten harder to stay vigilant. People miss their routines, their friends and being able to give their loved ones’ a hug.
Saltz says, "Many are starting to say, 'I can't prevent this from happening.' They are tired of living in fear and that is their rationale to stop doing things (like wearing a mask or social distancing) to protect themselves and others."
Even people who want to do the "right" thing are confused, and that is anxiety-provoking.
When schools, restaurants and salons were shuttered by the government to “flatten the curve," people had no choice but to stay home. While that may have been frustrating, there is also some comfort in being given exact instructions on how to proceed. Now, people are confused about what they should and should not do.
A once simple decision about whether to go out to dinner on a Saturday night is now fraught with stress. Even if you decide to go out, it's not the old "normal," with many states not allowing indoor dining and servers wearing masks.
"It's more frightening having to take ownership of our own decisions," Saltz says. "We have to be responsible for ourselves and our children. And if something happens, we only have ourselves to blame, which is anxiety-provoking."
Adding to the stress is that in many states, the number of COVID-19 cases has been rising and the rules keep changing.
According to Saltz, "The medical professionals are learning more about the virus every day, which is stressful because sometimes they learn something new that contradicts what they thought before. It’s very hard psychologically because the situation keeps evolving.”
11 Tips for Managing the Coronacoaster
One way to feel more secure is to acknowledge that there will be (emotional) ups and downs and twists and turns as we move forward. Saltz compares it to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance ), which people mistakenly believe always happen in order.
"Just like when dealing with grief, don’t expect feelings to be linear. Individual circumstances will shift us in and out of the different stages and emotions," she says.
Other tips for riding the coronacoaster include:
- Give yourself permission to be anxious. Joseph Tropper, a clinical therapist with Corewell, which offers virtual mental health presentations, says, “Acknowledging anxiety is always the first step to overcoming it. Give yourself some time to process it.”
- Reach out for support from others. We all need help sometimes, especially during times of crisis. Don’t allow social distancing to make you emotionally distant from friends and family.
- Don’t beat yourself up. We might feel guilty for being down or complaining about little inconveniences when people are suffering worse than we are. Saltz says, “We have all experienced some level of disappointment and it’s okay to be sad as long as you maintain perspective.”
- Pick your “sharers” wisely. Read the room. For example, don’t complain about having too much work to a friend who has just lost her job.
- Don’t judge others. Again, we are all in different boats in this storm. You don't know what another person is going through or what their circumstances are. Practice patience and empathy for everyone from your best friend to the cashier at the market.
- Filter your news sources. Tropper suggests going on a “media diet.” Pick a small list of reliable sources (including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and your local government) to rely on for news. Stay informed, but try not to ruminate. Set a time limit and avoid reading the news before bedtime.
- Do community service. Research shows that when you help others, you feel better too. Consider safe, hands-on volunteering opportunities, making a donation to your local food bank or giving blood.
- Stay healthy. Making nutritional food choices, staying hydrated, limiting alcohol consumption, exercising and practicing good sleep hygiene are essential for physical and emotional health.
- Create a routine. It’s easy to stay in your pajamas all day (or put on a work shirt for your Zoom call, but not shower). But it’s better to set up some type of schedule and stick to it.
- Look for the positives. Magill says, "It is important in this time of crisis to find what might be the seeds of opportunity. Sometimes the seeds are so small that they are difficult to see. But they are there and, if we want to get to the new normal in the best way possible, we need to cultivate these seeds to begin to accept the change which is to come."
- Seek professional help. Don't be afraid to talk to a physician or therapist if you are feeling depressed or overwhelmed. Most are offering both in-person and telehealth options.
The desire to want things to go “back to normal" is understandable, as is a fear of going back to normal or concern about what the new normal will look like.
So, resist the urge to admonish yourself for having mixed emotions; be extra kind to yourself instead.