Negative impacts and silver linings: Why our feelings about COVID are complicated

Loss and grieving remain part of the fabric of our shared experience as does a lot of uncertainty and anxiety
Joshua Altman
Joshua Altman

Early this summer, with COVID-19 vaccination rates increasing and case numbers and hospitalizations declining, it felt to many Americans that we had finally begun the process of “getting back to normal.”

While the Delta variant of the virus reminds us we’re not out of the woods yet, for the growing majority of U.S. adults who are now fully vaccinated that transition still continues, albeit amid a mix of thoughts and emotions, as we make our much-anticipated returns to schools, colleges and the workplace.

After the isolation and other hardships of the past 18 months, our natural impulse may be to celebrate—as we should. However, it’s important to remember that almost half of Americans continue to be “uneasy about adjusting to in-person interaction.”

We must be mindful, too, that mixed in amongst the balloons, welcome back receptions, and orientation parties on campus this fall will be students who have lost family members, faculty who have lost partners, and others enduring a prolonged struggle with the virus.

The regrettable fact is loss and grieving remain part of the fabric of our shared experience as does a lot of uncertainty and anxiety about our individual and societal response to the pandemic moving forward.

The U.S. is one of the countries hardest hit by COVID-19, with roughly one in three Americans knowing someone killed by the virus. The vast majority of Americans (89%), meanwhile, say they can identify at least one significant negative impact from the pandemic in their own lives.

And yet, a smaller but still sizable 73% of those also cited at least one unexpected positive upside of their COVID experience, such as more time to spend with spouses, children or other family members, to explore new hobbies or give additional hours to community service. Most say they’ve experienced these negative impacts and silver linings simultaneously.

This positive/negative, joy/guilt, excitement/anxiety, love/hostility emotional tug of war occurring in offices, factories, schools, homes, and neighborhoods across the country has led some of my colleagues to describe America’s current emotional landscape as a weird place where grief and gladness, despair and delight, oppression and optimism exist in the same space and time, rarely experienced on such a collective scale before.

We have no idea what it means to come back from a health crisis of the magnitude of the current pandemic, which continues to rage in largely unvaccinated sections of the U.S. and other parts of the world. There is little generational memory or common reference, and most disquieting of all, no way to know what the mutable virus will do next—beyond staying unpredictable. To most mental health professionals, it’s little surprise that people are feeling unanchored and unsure.

But we’re also agreed the important thing now is to acknowledge the era-defining collective trauma we’ve all just been through, and recognize that nothing so complicated lends itself to simple categorizations, answers or treatments. It’s OK to feel ‘different’ about how we feel about things because COVID is a different experience and we—and the world—will be forever different in its wake.

Joshua Altman is associate director of the Student Counseling Center at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York.

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