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North Hills Monthly

Transitioning through Pandemic Will Take Time, Support

May 28, 2020 05:58PM ● By Vanessa Orr

These last five months have been difficult for everyone—not just in Pittsburgh or the United States, but around the world. And while things are slowly improving and businesses are beginning to open back up, it’s going to take a long time for people to feel like things are back to normal—or as close to normal as we can get.

According to mental health professionals, even when the immediate trauma is over, there will still be long-lasting effects. While every person handles stress differently, there are some things including exercise, getting outside and talking to a supportive friend, family member or professional, that can help make the transition easier.

Acknowledging the Trauma

According to Stephanie Wijkstrom, MS, LPC, NCC, licensed counselor and founder of The Counseling and Wellness Center of Pittsburgh, one of the first steps in dealing with the crisis is understanding what effect COVID-19 has had on your mental and emotional health. 

“People need to acknowledge that this is a cultural trauma that will have an impact on their well-being, just like any emotional response to sudden or unexpected events,” she explained. “They may be experiencing flashbacks, strained relationships or nightmares, and feel robbed of a sense of safety. 

“They may also be feeling increased health anxiety, similar to hypochondriasis, and become hyper-vigilant about germs and handwashing. While this might have been called OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) before, now it’s the way that we’re supposed to be taking care of ourselves.”

According to Wijkstrom, people are also feeling anxious about their financial survival, as well as experiencing grief over things lost during the pandemic.

“Graduating seniors have missed their proms and graduation ceremonies, and the elderly residing in assisted living facilities have lost their relationships with family members,” she explained. “We have all lost several months of our lives.”

Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, pastor and executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting says that he has seen a leap in anxiety levels in general, especially in members of the millennial generation and Generation Z.

“At any time, people have a host of mental health issues; even before this happened, children and young adults had a lot of anxiety,” he explained. “But since COVID, we have seen even greater levels of anxiety caused by the feeling of not knowing what to do. 

“There is such divisiveness in our culture, and so many confusing messages,” he continued. “We’re being told to shelter at home and to start up our businesses; we’re hearing that COVID will harm or kill everyone, or that it’s just like the flu. Everyone has strong opinions, and this is resulting in an even higher level of anxiety.”

Isolation is also beginning to wear on people, as are economic uncertainties.

“For extroverts, isolation from their friends is hard; Zoom meetings were only fun for the first couple of weeks. Even introverts are finding it tough because while they enjoy being by themselves, they still rely on outside relationships,” Standish explained. 

“People are furloughed or losing their jobs, and people who run businesses are worried about them collapsing,” he continued. “No one knows what things will be like in June, or in August, or late fall. Many people are living in the future, worrying about everything to come.”

Working toward Healing

According to Wijkstrom, people are moving through the stages of grief as they confront the effects of the pandemic, and they are taking stock of what the future holds.

“For the last four or five months, people have been responding to a growing awareness of the virus: denial is the initial stage of grief, followed by anger, which we’ve seen through conversations with one another and in protests. Things are boiling over.

“Then there’s the bargaining stage, where we do what we can, like staying inside if it prevents taking the lives of more people,” she continued. “We’re now in the depression and acceptance phases of grief, feeling overwhelmed and defeated, and tired of being stuck in our homes, which is putting a strain on relationships.”

Depending on the person, it may take a shorter or longer amount of time to transition through these stages; people also go back and forth between the steps as they process the pandemic. As with any form of trauma, some people are more resilient than others and work through the process more easily. 

“They may have more positive coping skills and positive social support,” said Wijkstrom. “Another subset of the population may have been triggered by this and will need more support to get back to a new normal. If they have underlying mental health disorders like anxiety, depression or a substance abuse disorder, people will need to be extra supportive of these folks.” 

Already, Wijkstrom says that crisis hotlines have seen a ten-fold increase in calls, and COVID-19 has become one of the main topics of clients in counseling sessions. 

“COVID-19 has brought underlying issues to the surface due to people’s isolation, or proximity to those they live with, or substance abuse issues,” she said, adding that in Wuhan, one of the areas first hit by the coronavirus, couples began filing for divorce 10 minutes after the stay-at-home order was lifted.

“People need to be more supportive of each other and embrace compassion and understanding,” she said. “Those who want to go back to work to save their businesses and bank accounts need to have compassion for those who are immunocompromised and can’t; they need to be patient and understanding of people who want to have birthday parties even if they don’t, and not be critical of those who are hypervigilant because of health fears.”

The Counseling and Wellness Center is still seeing patients in their offices and also offers virtual visits for those who need help. Wijkstrom also recommends that people speak to their doctors if they feel they may need pharmacological support.

According to Standish, it can help people to talk through issues with therapists, even if they’ve never been to counseling before.

“They don’t need to sign up for months and months of therapy; I advise them to call to set up one or two or three appointments,” he said. “It can help them gain perspective.”

He also advises churchgoers to reach out for a phone or video chat with their pastors, and for everyone to talk to the people who care about them.

“Also, if you’ve just been sitting at home, go out for walks and get exercise,” he added.

Unfortunately, teletherapy may not work for everyone; Samaritan Counseling has seen a slight drop-off in the number of calls they’re getting from specific populations, even as they’ve seen increases from other users.

“Video therapy is a struggle, especially for children and adolescents who rely on coming into the office to speak confidentially; they may not be able to find that privacy at home,” he said. “It is also incredibly difficult for those in abusive situations to talk by virtual therapy because the abusive person is not going to give them privacy.”

As the pandemic wanes, Standish worries that therapists will be dealing with other issues as well.

“I have a suspicion that drinking rates have gone up because people have been coping with anxiety by eating and drinking more, which is going to cause more health issues on the other end of the crisis,” he said. 

While it is going to take a long time to get back to whatever the new normal is, people need to understand that none of the effects of the pandemic will go away quickly.

“These experiences will stick with people globally, and for generations,” said Standish. “Eventually, enough people will develop an immunity, or we’ll have a vaccine, or better treatments will be available to help us move on to normal life. But it’s going to take a long time, despite us wanting to bounce back. Everyone will adjust at different rates, and eventually the crisis will be over.

“People think that not having a crisis is the norm, but if you look back through history, there have always been periods of crisis and difficulty,” he added. “People adjust best when they recognize that normalcy and stability are gifts, and they need to hold on to the hope that we will get back there.” 

Ed. Note: Some insurers, including Highmark, Aetna and UPMC, are covering copays for video therapy during the pandemic. Check with your insurance provider. There is also often aid available for those who are uninsured or underinsured.