This Is Your Body On Pandemic 'Whiplash'

2021 was a roller coaster year, with COVID vaccines, new coronavirus variants and infection surges. Here's how all that affects your physical and mental health.
Luis Alvarez via Getty Images

The year 2021 has been like a roller coaster. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic fizzled out. Instead, it was a year of intense whiplash.

There were multiple points when it seemed like we’d finally gotten a handle on COVID, only to realize later that the virus wasn’t going anywhere, and that we’re still far from the finish line.

The relief that came with the rollout of vaccines was followed by news of a more transmissible variant — delta — gaining steam around the world. And just as the delta surge started to settle, scientists identified a new strain called omicron, raising anxiety again.

All that back-and-forth has taken a toll on our physical and mental health. Some people have begun to feel numb to the highs and lows, while others have become hypervigilant to every new revelation.

Here’s how this kind of whiplash affects our health, and how to cope with it:

The toll whiplash takes on our bodies

Throughout the pandemic, a lot of people have coped by hoping that specific, reachable goals — like the authorization of vaccines, or the reopening of schools and businesses — would signal the end of the pandemic.

“But what’s happened is every time we’ve gotten there, it’s like ‘Oh, wait, just kidding, a little bit longer, a little bit longer,’” said Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at NYU Langone Health.

People naturally want predictability and control — some more than others. So, it can be taxing to repeatedly expect things to go one way, only to have them go another. This sort of mindset can bring on a lot of disappointment, anger and stress. Not to mention, it can be exhausting to constantly pivot between fear and relief.

Frank Anderson, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma and author of ”Transcending Trauma,” said these highs and lows between periods of fear and calm are emblematic of long-term, ongoing trauma.

During stressful or traumatic experiences, our bodies release the stress hormone cortisol and we become hyperaroused. But when the stressor is removed, we recover and move on.

“But with chronic, ongoing trauma, cortisol levels cannot keep up with the demand — they do not recover and therefore become chronically low,” Anderson said.

This cycle taxes the stress system and eventually it burns out. That causes some people to become even more hyperreactive to stressful or traumatic events, and others to feel numb, withdrawn and disconnected.

“When that happens over and over, people become exhausted and worn out and less able to mount an appropriate response when there’s a real, actual threat to their safety or well-being,” said Lucy McBride, an internal medicine physician in Washington, D.C.

This can also lead to physical symptoms, like headaches, decreased energy, chronic pain and digestive issues.

Shot of a man looking stressed while sitting on the sofa at home
Charday Penn via Getty Images
Shot of a man looking stressed while sitting on the sofa at home

How to cope with pandemic whiplash

First, give yourself credit for all the uncertainty you have been able to handle. If you step back, you can see that all of life is very uncertain, Gallagher said. “The truth is we tolerate uncertainty in so many areas of our lives that we don’t give ourselves credit for.”

Next, accept what you cannot control. During times of uncertainty, it’s helpful to distinguish what’s beyond your control (COVID) and what is within your control (risk mitigation, for example). The more you can lean into uncertainty and tolerate it, the less disappointment and stress you will feel when things don’t go the way you expect, Gallagher said.

Focus on the moment. Once you accept that we live in an uncertain world, bring yourself back to the things you can control and influence in your daily life. Doing so restores your sense of agency, McBride said.

There is no concrete end to the pandemic on the horizon. So, rather than wait for what might happen next, stay grounded in what’s going on now. “The key is to try to be present in the moment, to enjoy what you can today,” Anderson said.

Be intentional about how you consume information. Gallagher advises her patients to limit how much time they spend reading the news. They should be informed and able to make safe decisions, but not overwhelmed.

McBride recommends reading pandemic news ”with a little more of a filter.” Avoid panicky headlines. And instead of focusing on case numbers, look at the hospitalization and death rates, which provide a more accurate picture of where the pandemic is headed.

Finally, if you are suffering, reach out. This is an unusual time, but there are many tools and resources available that can help you better cope with riding the waves of fear and relief. “Give yourself the opportunity to get the help that you need,” Gallagher said.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story stated Gallagher worked at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She now works at NYU Langone Health.

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