By Seraphina Seow
Although the coronavirus was circulating in the United States in January 2020, last March was full of harrowing firsts. Whether you eventually experienced the illness firsthand or not, your life undoubtedly changed—perhaps even devastatingly—in March 2020, when COVID-19 became a household name in the U.S.
If you need a refresher, the American Journal of Managed Care reports that during that month, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, and the outbreak officially became a national emergency in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many states started issuing stay-at-home orders last March. So as we approach March 2021, you may be thinking more about what you’ve gone through over the last 12 months, which can dredge up a well of complicated emotions.
“A year is an important marker of time,” Sarah Lowe, Ph.D., assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Yale School of Public Health, tells SELF. “When you go through each year, feelings come up about time and about the trajectory of one’s life.” So it’s logical that March might find you feeling a little heavier. Below, you’ll learn a bit about why this March might have unique challenges and how your body and mind might react to the pandemic anniversary, plus a few techniques to help you cope.
This anniversary can be stressing in multiple ways.
The pandemic is a unique stressor because we are still in it even though a year has passed. It’s hard to make sense of something while we’re still experiencing it, Elana Newman, Ph.D., McFarlin professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa, tells SELF. So if you’ve found it particularly tough to cope, reflecting on the year can bring all of those more difficult events to the surface, Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells SELF.
Another potential trigger? Retrospective news coverage about the pandemic’s one-year anniversary in the United States might also draw your focus to the stressful circumstances people in this country have faced, Dana Rose Garfin, Ph.D., health psychologist and faculty at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing, University of California, Irvine, tells SELF.
Even if you aren’t intentionally reflecting or watching much news, the pandemic has been fundamentally disruptive. Dr. Lowe says that simply realizing it is now March 2021 brings you face to face with the fact that an entire year of your life has passed. This can relay different messages to different individuals: It may remind you that you haven’t been to your favorite restaurant for a year, that you’ve been at a standstill in your love life, or that you have missed your niece’s first year of life.
The pandemic anniversary might affect you mentally, physically, or both.
All of these realizations and reflections might increase feelings like restlessness, anxiousness, irritability, sadness, or fatigue, Maryam Kia-Keating, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells SELF. These feelings can manifest physically too.
Typically, when you experience something troubling or stressful, parts of your brain (the amygdala and hypothalamus) activate your sympathetic nervous system. As SELF previously reported, this response is generally known as the fight-or-flight response. During this time your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that encourage you to fight, freeze, or flee. You can experience physical issues like insomnia, gastrointestinal troubles, and shortness of breath. The fight-or-flight response can also trigger mental symptoms like anxious thoughts and rumination, Dana Rose Garfin, Ph.D., health psychologist and faculty at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing, University of California, Irvine, tells SELF. So it can be a vicious circle.
When this happens, it can be hard to talk yourself down, but knowing that this month might bring unique challenges, you can arm yourself with coping strategies to help manage any discomfort that comes up.
Here’s how you can cope during March (and beyond).
1. Prepare a self-care tool kit.
Self-care practices—like exercising, getting enough rest, engaging in prayer and meditation, or connecting with loved ones—are often the first to get disrupted when you feel overwhelmed, Dr. Kia-Keating explains. But they are also what assist in rejuvenating you emotionally and physically, setting you up to weather incoming stress. If you’ve stopped doing these, pick one or two and try to do them consistently.
If you find that your old tricks and tactics aren’t as effective, don’t worry too much. Dr. Lowe points out that sometimes your coping strategies may not work as well as they used to in the thick of a stress-inducing period. It’s okay to try new things and discard practices that no longer work. Experimentation can help you get through the month.
2. Allow yourself to experience your emotions.
When a thought or memory rolls through your mind, make it a practice to stop and observe the accompanying emotion. You can write it down or name it aloud. Doing this brings mindful awareness to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, Dr. Garfin says. This also helps remind you that you’re experiencing normal responses during a crisis rather than threats that need a concrete resolution. If you are having trouble figuring out exactly what you feel, journaling or even consulting a feelings wheel might bring some clarity.
3. Identify a few grounding techniques.
As mentioned above, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode when you’re stressed, so it’s a good idea to learn a few simple grounding techniques to manage physical symptoms. For instance, deep breathing—where you place one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach and you slowly breathe in and out through your nose—activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Known as the rest-and-digest response, the action of your parasympathetic nervous system can help counter anxiety. You might also touch something cold or do a rigorous household chore (like scrubbing tile) to ground yourself. (There are lots of other great grounding techniques to try as well.)
4. Limit stressful media consumption and social media use.
If you know you tense up reading about daily COVID-19 cases or hearing friends vent about non-maskers, Dr. Garfin suggests you limit time spent on social media platforms and news sites. Reports and social media posts on the first anniversary since the start of the pandemic are likely to circulate online throughout March. Since the pandemic hasn’t ended, there’s a chance other people’s posts will reflect uncertainty and grief. Reading that others share your distress may feel validating, but it can also activate stress and compound anxieties. If you need information urgently, Dr. Lowe recommends going to a trusted source like the CDC, getting the facts, then clicking away.
5. Lean into gratitude (without diminishing your pain).
It might seem hokey, but gratitude lists and journals are tried-and-true advice among therapists. Recite or write down something that makes you genuinely feel gratitude and peace, while acknowledging the hardship you’re in. “You can say, ‘It was very difficult that I lost my job and had to move in with relatives. At the same time, I’m very grateful I have relatives to move in with,’” says Dr. Garfin. “It’s a non-dualistic approach to accepting the reality of difficult situations while still maintaining a positive frame of mind to help you move forward.”
Maybe it’s easier for you to feel genuine gratitude for things happening outside your world; if so, go with that. And don’t forget to express gratitude toward yourself too, Dr. Garfin says, for surviving an unprecedented time.
6. Focus on thinking about how you’ve displayed resilience.
As you reflect on gratitude and growth, Dr. Newman encourages you to note how you’ve adapted thus far and consider how you might continue to do so moving forward. For instance, you can think about how you miss social gatherings and ask yourself: What have I already done successfully to still connect with people while abiding by my state’s public health directives? What do I want to change from here onward to make it easier to deal with? Reminding yourself that you’ve weathered difficult moments and solved problems helps you build the resilience necessary to keep thriving.
7. Talk with a therapist if you can.
The last year has likely brought significant disruptions to your life, and you might need extra support to help you process. Don’t be afraid to seek a professional mental health provider if you need to talk about your concerns with another person. Could you phone a friend? Yes, but since the pandemic has been a collective experience, Dr. Garfin says that you should be mindful about relying on venting with your friends or family members. Before you unload, check in with your loved ones to ensure they can support you (and grant them grace if they can’t).
Ultimately, a trained mental health provider can give you space to freely express your frustrations and receive the validation you need. You can look into finding an affordable provider or an online support group to help you process. Dr. Lowe suggests using the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s health treatment services locator to find a therapist in your area. If you need more immediate support, Dr. Lowe suggests connecting to a mental health hotline; there are some available 24/7. You can text HOME to 741741 and connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor who can support you. Or you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—1-800-273-8255—to get extra support if you need it.