Just as we enter the depths of the winter season, a new surge in cases is beginning to unfold. The most recently identified COVID variant, Omicron, has only been known about for a little over a month, yet it's already accounting for the highest rate of new cases since the start of the pandemic in the U.S.
Jeremy Lormis, PhD, LPC, lead faculty advisor of the clinical mental health counseling program at the University of Phoenix, told Verywell that just the week before Christmas, he'd learned of a couple of clients who had their holiday plans upended due to the virus.
"A whole part of their family wound up contracting COVID, so then other family members were just frightened, and now there's this buildup," he said. "[People are wondering if] every four to six months, this is what life is going to be. Are we just going to have one new variant after the other?"
Researchers are gathering data to better understand Omicron, but it has been found to spread more easily than the original virus, as well as be able to cause infection regardless of vaccination status. Still, the vaccines are protecting against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Regardless of how Omicron works, the mental health consequences are certain. COVID whiplash, a diminishing sense of hope, and seasonal depression are all colliding to create the perfect storm for many people. As Lormis said, the seemingly unending nature of the pandemic may be particularly difficult to deal with in the coming months.
Although vaccines, boosters, and pills are giving us tools to deal with and prevent further suffering, it's perfectly reasonable to struggle during a massive global tragedy. If and when you have time, Lormis suggested a few activities you can work into your days in order to cope and feel better.
Verywell: How will this surge possibly impact mental health?
Lormis: I think there's a lot of building anxiety. People are just unsure of what the future is going to hold. Maybe they're not able to be with family when they would like to be, or maybe they're reminded of losses. All of those things can compound. And then you add to that seasonal effect and fatigue. This could be a very challenging time.
Verywell: What are some ways people can cope if they're struggling?
Lormis: I don't think there's any single recipe that works for everybody. Some of it is just understanding ourselves and what works. Self-awareness begins by recognizing, "Hey, I'm just feeling really anxious about this in a way that I haven't, or I'm just feeling really sad in a way that I haven't." Then pause long enough to do some self-evaluation and acknowledge it. Sometimes we tend to pretend it doesn't exist.
There's a large percentage of people in the United States who, when they start to feel some sort of physical symptom or internal pain, think that if they ignore it long enough it'll go away. We tend to do that with mental health, too.
The tendency is to think, "Maybe I'm feeling a little anxious or a little sad, but I'll just ignore it and it'll go away." Sometimes it does work that way, but there are times when it doesn't. Just being aware of it can help. We can try to be honest with ourselves and say, "You know what? I am kind of sad, anxious, worried, or lonely right now."
The next step goes hand in hand with acknowledging it. Self-awareness involves not being afraid to talk to somebody about it. That somebody can be a close friend or a family member who you can trust. Just talking about it can sometimes help. You can say, "This latest version of the coronavirus is now starting to impinge on our ability to interact with friends and be involved in social settings. I'm just really getting tired of it. I'm frustrated and worried if life is ever going to be like it was before."
Verywell: So first acknowledging what's going on inside, then talking about it with somebody who you trust. What comes next?
Lormis: You need to make sure you're not neglecting taking care of yourself. That could be as simple as going out and being outside on a sunny day. Even if it's cold, if the sun is shining, go outside. If you can go for a walk, any sort of exercise is good. Exercise provides a very natural formula for a mood boost due to the endorphins that are released. You don't have to do an extreme workout. Just a simple walk can help produce that.
So if you start to think, "I'm really isolated and lonely. I'm really sad," it might be a good time just to open the door, go outside, go for a walk, and see the world around you.
You should also engage in some self-care more broadly. What do you like to do? Are you doing the things that make you happy? In the wintertime, people lose their rhythm because they become more sedentary. It might be time to think about an indoor hobby. Engaging in hobbies, learning a new skill, learning some new thing can be helpful.
I read an interesting article yesterday about Martha Stewart—one of the things that helped her while she was in prison was learning how to knit. And I thought, whenever we're in an environment where we can't be out and doing the things that we like to do, we can learn a new skill. We can engage. Not that I'm going to do crocheting, but somebody might want to pick that up.
There's also finding creative ways to stay socially connected. This is a theme we've been hearing since the beginning: How can you still creatively connect with friends and family?
I mentioned earlier that there was a client I've worked with. This week, their Christmas plans completely fell apart at the last minute. And so I asked, "How can you rebuild it in a different way?" She has a couple of roommates and they're all stuck together, so I suggested that they maybe start a new tradition with friends. It's not what Christmas normally looks like for them, because they're not with their families in the way that they would like to be, but they could still connect. They could still enjoy the day.
It's not one recipe for everybody. If you try something and it doesn't help, go do something else. And then there may come a time when we do want to reach out for therapy.
Verywell: At what point should someone consider turning to therapy?
Lormis: If you're in a place where you seem to be really anxious, the anxiety is increasing, and it's interfering with your ability to complete your work-related tasks or relationships, it might be time to reach out to a therapist. If your sadness just isn't going away, reach out. It doesn't have to be the first step you take, but it is an option and it can prove to be very helpful and beneficial.
There are great treatment options out there that are proven to be very helpful and very effective. And it's not like you have to be in therapy for the rest of your life. Sometimes just getting four, five, or eight sessions is sufficient to give you a little boost.
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