In every corner of the world, you are confronted with various media recapping the past year and dissecting exactly how the pandemic has radically changed society as we know it, your subconscious included.
One day last year, SARS-CoV-2 was someone else’s problem, namely the exclusive residents of Wuhan, China; some doctors and nurses from northern Italy; a generous number of passengers in a Diamond Princess cruise. But then the next day, unknowingly, it became the world’s burden.
That day was March 11, 2020 – one catastrophic, tragic year ago.
Given that we are now coming to terms with the fact it has been a literal year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, those heavy feelings you might harbor towards it, along with the pandemic paranoia and anxiety in general is what psychologists are dubbing “the anniversary effect”.
Looking back now, it’s hard to grapple with the sensation of which a single virus has radically transformed nearly all aspects of life and completely shifting the national consciousness towards health. It has been more or less 365 days since we’ve hugged our friends, visited relatives, watched movies in the theatre, travelled to faraway places, without the weight of the disease looming over our every decision.
A long, gruelling twelve months since we last shook hands with clients, heard the tell-tale roar of a crowd during concerts, or even left the house without plastering a mask on place.
The earth has done a full orbit around the sun since we have been able to properly relax. This weighty revelation comes with its own set of realizations, both good and bad; but if you find yourself feeling extra brought down or disheartened by such news, you are not alone.
“A year is an important marker of time,” says Sarah Lowe, Ph.D., assistant professor of social and behavioural sciences at Yale School of Public Health. “When you go through each year, feelings come up about time and about the trajectory of one’s life.”
Dr. Lowe states that simply realizing it is now March 2021 confronts you face to face with the fact an entire year of your life has passed just like that. This sort of epiphany can translate differently for each person: it may remind them they haven’t went to the movies in over a year, that they haven’t eaten at their favourite hole-in-the-wall restaurant by the corner, that they’ve been in an eternal standstill in their love lives, or even just that they missed a full year of living in general.
Renowned therapist and counselor, Sarah Harrington, explains that our bodies and brains are capable of storing painful memories that can be triggered by certain dates or seasons; kind of like winter blues. The death of a loved one, the annual reminder of a serious diagnosis, or even, the one-year anniversary of a pandemic – these are all things that can attribute to a sudden spike in stress and anxiety.
Harrington explains, “Grief is normal, it’s natural, it’s expected, it’s important.”
Whereas with grief anniversaries come with a certain form of shared suffering, the pandemic is an event one weathers through all on their own, but simultaneously so. If you find yourself in an extra bad mood lately, nitpicking and getting frustrated with every small thing; chances are, everyone around you is also going through the same thing.
Even if you haven’t lost someone in particular to the virus, there is still much to grieve about. You can find yourself grieving over the loss of seeing your niece turn a year older, the cancellation of that Paris trip you’ve been saving forever for, the inability to walk down the aisle for your wedding or graduation, these things are still significant.
You still missed out on important events and postponed meaningful celebrations, and this too is a loss. The everyday routines, social lives, and sense of security have all shifted dramatically. There is also the continuously growing death toll, with over 2 million people killed, can have a paramountal effect on everyone whether they realize it or not.
This understanding of the gravity of what the pandemic has put us through has resulted in a spectrum of challenges, including feelings of despair, anxiety and depression, and general helplessness, which can hinder productivity and our ability to connect with others.
Harrington then advises for people to practice kindness, consideration and compassion, both with themselves and others. Showing general empathy for the suffering of others can go a long way to healing your own mental wounds. “Because we’re so scared right now, we’re locking into our beliefs,” she said. “Change is scary; it brings up anxiety. But we have to remember that other people are scared, too.”
There are other small things you can do to help yourself get through this period. “The biggest piece is routine and structure,” Harrington said.
She recommends getting at least eight hours of sleep and structuring your daily activities in a way that gives you comfort and predictability, thereby granting you with some form of control back in your life. Harrington also suggests getting creative with human contact and the art of physical touch, whether extending your quarantine bubble to include a trusted close friend or safely giving a loved one a “hug,” pressing against each other back-to-back. All within socially-distanced regulations, of course.
“Those two things, routine and touch, are extremely important for our well-being,” Harrington emphasizes.
This pandemic has stripped us of many joys and left only devastation for the longest time; so many normal markers of life have left us longing for what we once easily took for granted. We missed graduations, holidays, weddings, funerals, hugging, connecting with other people; and overall just plain living.
In this anniversary week, many of us feel we are left with very little of the good elements of our lives. But that is why it is extra crucial to love yourself a little bit more during this trying period. Treat your own mental health like physical health, and work not just to treat emotional illness, but to maintain emotional wellness.
A year from now, we can hopefully look back on this life-changing phenomenon as something that has shaped our mental willpower and physical endurance for the better.