COVID-19 Stress Syndrome

Dear All, I was tested for the coronavirus yesterday -- not once, but twice. After spending the past month in isolation, I never dreamed I’d wind up needing a test. But at 2 AM yesterday morning, I was jolted awake by shortness of breath and a crushing sensation in my chest accompanied by a piercing headache. Mentally, I skipped right over the most obvious culprits: a heart attack or an anxiety attack. Instead I fast forwarded to a diagnosis that, for me, made no sense: I have it. I have the virus. Instantly, horrifying stories that have defined the coronavirus pandemic came to mind. I thought of our noble doctors, nurses and health care workers forced to fight the invisible enemy without the resources they deserve, the travesty of how the richest country in the world still does not have adequate testing for all of its citizens, how a politically partisan pandemic is disproportionately ravaging communities of color while the sandy white beaches in Florida are back in business. And, in that moment, I realized that, despite thinking I’d adapted to life in the time of COVID-19, the omnipresent stress of these surreal times can't be denied. It’s not like I hadn’t been warned. I’d seen a Harvard Business Review Q & A  with David Kessler, considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on grief, talking about how we're all experiencing a sense of profound loss because of the seismic changes the pandemic has imposed on our daily lives.  “This is change we didn’t want,” Kessler says, “and it’s important to name it for what it is: grief. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.” In addition, Kessler, who with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross co-wrote “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” said we’re also being bedeviled by anticipatory grief. "Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. Usually it centers on death. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis or when we have the normal thought that we’ll lose a parent someday. Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.”  A proliferation of recent surveys attests to how the coronavirus crisis has escalated into a nationwide psychological trauma. If you’re scared, anxious, depressed, struggling to sleep through the night, or just on edge, you’re not alone.  Therapist Lori Gottlieb found that, when patients describe how they’re feeling about the new normal in mental health terms, she hears the word “loss” as often as she hears “anxiety.” In her NYT op-ed, Gottlieb acknowledged, "This may seem obvious, because many people are experiencing tremendous loss as a result of this pandemic: loss of life, loss of loved ones, loss of health, loss of jobs and income. For those who are losing loved ones at this time, there is also the loss of the normal rituals of funerals and communities gathering to grieve together. But what might be less obvious are the smaller losses that also affect our emotional health — from the ability to buy eggs to getting a haircut.” Loss — and stress — are in the eye of the beholder. Katarina Kovac, a senior at the University of Michigan, recounted what she called a “privileged problem” when she wrote about the searing sense of loss she experienced when her graduation was cancelled. When word came, she collapsed, sat on the bathroom floor in her parents’ home and sobbed. Her parents — who had sacrificed to send Katarina to college — shared her pain. Unsurprisingly, Katarina’s plight was met with a shrug by many who cited the real victims of COVID-19 — those who have lost their loved ones, their jobs, or their businesses. “Can’t I acknowledge the magnitude of the horror and suffering this crisis has brought to the world while still allowing myself to grieve what I’ve lost?” Katarina asked. According to Kessler, Katarina’s ability to accept her loss is the first step to ameliorating her grief. "Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies,” said Kessler, "We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”  Or, in Katarina’s case, I can celebrate my academic achievements without an official event.

Now as we start to see the first green shoots of life after lockdown, many say their angst is also being stoked by fear about the November elections. As the Democratic presidential primary has faded from view, there has been a clamoring for presumptive nominee Joe Biden to be more visible, in effect, to step up as a shadow POTUS. How ironic that as recently as February, headlines were predicting that the unruly, fractious Democrats were on track for a brokered convention in Milwaukee. Instead, the Democratic Party has fallen into lockstep while supporters are bemoaning Biden’s inability to be heard above the discordant din of Trump’s daily press rallies. Granted, Trump’s presence during the pandemic dwarfs Biden’s. But according to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has dropped 6 points in the past month. His reality show briefings are bombing. Plus, 65% of U.S. adults in a Pew survey think Trump was too slow to act on the pandemic. Meanwhile, the low-profile Biden is showing Joementum in the polls. As postponed state primaries loom on the horizon, concern about ongoing Republican efforts to suppress and disenfranchise the vote are starting to bubble up and add to the fray. So is the widespread trepidation about ballot security and how to shore up the system so that every votes counts. Or, as “On Tyranny” author Dr. Timothy Snyder put it, "The plan seems to be to not count the dead in Republican counties and not count the vote in Democratic ones." All of this is being played out against the tug of war between Trump and the governors over when we can (as if we’re talking about a renovated Whole Foods) re-open the country. It’s a squabble that has spawned the latest GOP meme propagating a false equivalence that, in order to save the American economy, Americans will have to die. What Republicans don’t say is that the Trump administration’s Third World approach to testing for the virus is largely to blame. Researchers at Harvard University caution that the United States cannot safely reopen unless it conducts at least three times the number of coronavirus tests as it is currently administering. The bottom line? Coping with the political dread layered onto COVID-19’s perfect storm of psychological trauma is tricky. “We have not seen this in our lifetimes,” Dr. John Santopietro, who directs Hartford HeathCare’s mental health treatment network, said. “Even the trauma of 9/11 had a defined duration for most of us — this is going on and on, with daily uncertainty, and it has taken away our most important coping mechanism: the ability to be around each other.” According to mental health professionals, believing you are not in this unprecedented time alone is a powerful antidote to COVID-19 stress syndrome. “Peer support is crucial right now,” psychologist Michaela Fissel said. Adds Santopietro, “Helping others is a great coping mechanism in itself.”  Which brings me back to how I spent yesterday in the Emergency Room at New Milford Hospital, a small town Connecticut facility that combines cutting edge medicine with compassionate care. After my 2 AM panicky consult with online medical sites and my former Ski Patrol husband, I failed in my efforts to breathe through the chest pains and shortness of breath. My pitiful stab at meditation also fizzled. (I couldn’t stop obsessing about whether I’d forgotten to wipe a doorknob or was paying the price for going against traffic in the crowded aisle at the grocery store.) So, by the time I was admitted to the ER, I was scared. When they told me they’d administer the Abbott ID NOW “rapid” test for COVID-19, I was relieved and terrified at the same time. They explained I was also getting a second test for the virus, but I was too verklempt to understand why. Both COVID-19 tests came back negative.  In the end, my symptoms were attributed to GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) aka acid reflux in which stress plays a starring role.  There is still so much we don’t know about the coronavirus. We don’t really know how many people it’s killed or how many have lost their jobs because of it or when we’ll get a vaccine or when we’ll be able to see our friends and family again without logging onto Zoom.  What we do know is that we need to vanquish the feeling of being alone. And, if you feel like you are alone, listen to this hauntingly beautiful rendition of “You Will Be Found.” The anthem, led by Ben Platt who originated the role of Evan Hansen on Broadway, is raising funds for Feed The Children in the fight against COVID-19. Then help yourself by reaching out and helping someone else. Onward, Jane

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