COVID-19: From Anxiety to Sadness

By Becca Brodoff, PsyD

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a shift in myself and in my patients. When COVID-19 was first showing up in the U.S., anxiety was running high. Most people were overwhelmed by the uncertainty of the illness and how it would affect them and their loved ones. Fear was a constant emotion, whether it was rearing its ugly head or sitting there, like a hard rock lodged deep in your gut. As things have developed, people have begun to feel less fearful and, instead, more glum. The initial threat and concern of the virus is not over, but, for better or worse, we’ve gotten used to it.

Now, we are facing the wreckage the virus has brought upon us. Reality is setting in and for many of us, it’s looking quite grim. Whether we now find ourselves jobless, isolated from friends, responsible for homeschooling children, having missed plans or special milestones, or even lost someone close, all of us are trying to adjust to a new, and less ideal, normal.

Given these changes, which may be quite drastic and life altering, it’s perfectly normal and expected to feel down. The virus has stolen a lot from us in varying levels of severity. In some cases, we may be depressed but in others what we are experiencing is actually grief. Grief is an emotion that communicates that things have changed and what had existed before is no longer. The losses we have experienced from this pandemic are no different. 

Overcoming grief is not easy, but a starting point is to remember that we’re all in this together. This alone can be the antidote to grief and is commonly incorporated into the grieving practices of many religious and spiritual groups. After the death of a loved one, many people typically spend time with others whether it’s sitting Shiva, visiting the gravesite with family, sending flowers or food, or gathering to remember fond memories. This situation should be no different and therefore social support remains essential. In moments of grief, consider reaching out to others and sharing how you feel. This might sound like, “I’m having a hard time today” or “I just can’t seem to shake this sinking feeling.” You’ll likely be surprised to find how much speaking about our experiences helps us to deal with our emotions.

In the same vein, identifying that what we are feeling can help with emotion regulation. The act of naming our emotional experiences can provide a sense of control and allow us to respond compassionately. It can be dysregulating not knowing what we are feeling, so labeling what we are going through can be a big step in coping.

Another key component is self-validation. This might sound like, “it makes sense that I’m feeling sad because things are very different from how I imagined and hoped them to be.” Validation, whether it’s self- or other-focused, is a simple technique that generally goes a long way. When validated, most people experience an immediate reduction in suffering, which can then make room for active problem solving. 

And finally, a small shift in perspective can go a long way and be what’s needed to refocus attention on the present. While we cannot predict what the world will look like in three months, or even three days from now, we can find ways to make today meaningful. Some small suggestions include making a gratitude list, spending time outside, or completing a task that boosts a sense of accomplishment. As we notice and take advantage of what is within our control, grief will start to fade. However, let’s not be alarmed when sadness creeps in because that is a normal part of the grieving process.

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