Joyce Fegan: Where’s your head at in a post-pandemic world?

Many people are experiencing a starkly different set of feelings with spikes in anxiety and depression
Joyce Fegan: Where’s your head at in a post-pandemic world?

Body Coach Joe Wicks on stage at WellFest; home workouts with Wicks were one of the early tropes of lockdown. Picture: Marc O’Sullivan

In the world of pregnancy and parenthood there’s that trite phrase “nine months in, nine months out”, the inference being that parents should be “away in a hack” in the same amount of time as it took to grow the baby. There’s a similar, but much more scientific formula, for Covid and post traumatic stress.

“Studies on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) suggest that it takes one-third of the duration of the trauma to recover from it so it will take many people between six and eight months to find their feet again,” said Dr Paul D’Alton, head of the psychology department at St Vincent’s University Hospital, back in February when restrictions were lifted in Ireland.

“It’s more than okay to emerge out of these 24 months exactly the way you went into it,” he added.

By January 21, more than six months ago now, the bulk of restrictions were lifted in Ireland. By April 1, more than four months ago, all restrictions had ended, including things like showing proof of vaccination to travel to Ireland.

With the first non-restricted summer under our belt in 24 months, where has the dust of Covid settled in our lives? Where we used to talk in great public detail about the impact of restrictions and a pandemic on our lives, is there a collective experience of its opposite? Give or take six or seven months, how has your re-entry to a non-restricted life been?

I’ll go first. Parenting and the pandemic are synonymous for me. My own frame of reference for parenting is within a restricted world, my daughter was born seven days before the first case of Covid-19 was detected in Ireland. There was no need for things like changing bags, feeding on-the-go, passports, snack supplies, on-demand wet wipes, public changing tables or changing challenging nappies in the confines of a car.

There was private feet-finding, but not public. The public feet-finding came much later, when she was 2, by which stage, I was used to being a mother, albeit in settings like beaches, coffee shop queues, supermarkets and playgrounds only.

Unable to relate to lifting of restrictions

Last January as people celebrated being able to go for dinner and drinks unrestricted again, to travel where they pleased, and generally being able to get back to their pre-February 2020 life, I couldn’t relate.

My pre-February 2020 life involved hiking, travelling for work, lying on until 9am at the weekend and never having to tag-team with another adult if I wanted to, say, shower or something like that.

My post-January 2022 life looked a lot different and going out for dinner, commuting from the capital late at night and getting into bed even later held absolutely no appeal to me whatsoever.

My post-restriction re-entry was about public feet-finding as a parent. Where would we go, where did we want to go, now that we could anywhere? How should we, how do we, want to spend our time, now that we can do anything we want?

Our family was the tortoise, not the hare when it came to re-entry. Summer has helped. There have been long car journeys, longer beach days, daytime festivals, carnivals, reconnecting with old friends and generally breaking the back of bedded-in habits that were two years in the making.

Anxiety has been a common factor as we adapt to post-pandemic life. Picture: PA
Anxiety has been a common factor as we adapt to post-pandemic life. Picture: PA

How about you?

Last week, a man by the name of Christopher Shea, an editor in the Washington Post, died. He loved politics, pop culture, social science and “he assigned and edited hundreds of pieces that reflected his voracious consumption” of ideas in these areas, his employers said.

Shea is responsible for commissioning a piece that went viral last summer: “Why this stage of the pandemic makes us so anxious: many of us are suffering from ‘pandemic flux syndrome’.”

It was co-written by the famous social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, also of ‘power poses’ TED Talk fame. It was one of two pieces Shea had commissioned from her about mental health during the pandemic.

In the pandemic there were three phases around public mental health discussion. Each idea went viral. Firstly there was the banana bread phase, otherwise known as ‘surge capacity’ by scientists, where we went into emergency mode and embraced home workouts with Joe Wicks, sea swimming and Zoom table quizzes as ways to try and manage our wellbeing.

Then there was the ‘languishing’ phase, as coined by organisational psychologist Adam Grant in the New York Times in April 2021. “Feeling Blah During the Pandemic? It’s Called Languishing,” was the title of his essay. It was the time of vaccine roll-outs and waiting games, when we had all since worn weary of sourdough starters and home improvement projects.

Then in the summer of 2021, the Post’s Christopher Shea published Amy Cuddy’s ‘flux’ essay. It was summer 2021, the vaccine programmes were rolled out, why weren’t we all dancing the Charleston in our flapper dresses?

In June of 2021, “optimism was through the roof” according to a large poll by Gallup, where nearly 60% of Americans said they felt “thriving”.

By July it was a different picture as the Delta variant had emerged.

Different sets of emotions

“Many people are experiencing a starkly different set of feelings — blunted emotions, spikes in anxiety and depression, and a desire to drastically change something about their lives,” wrote Cuddy.

And in August 2022, give or take those six or seven months of life without restriction, where has the emotional dust settled?

The man, Christopher Shea, who commissioned this viral piece about “flux” had “depression and died by suicide”, his sister Nancy O’Driscoll said.

“Chris Shea was my editor on two Washington Post pieces over the last year, both about mental health during the pandemic: my piece with JillEllyn Riley on pandemic flux syndrome, and my new piece with Dr Nicholas Pearce on how powerless people have felt through the pandemic,” wrote Amy Cuddy in a tribute.

“He was wonderful to work with; so sharp, thoughtful, collaborative, responsive. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, he’s really managing well through all of this. I wish I could do the same’.

We just don’t know, and shouldn’t assume that we do, about the pains people are carrying and trying to live with.

Where’s the public conversation on mental health and wellbeing post restrictions? It would be great, but foolish, to assume that everyone was off enjoying the fine weather and opened-up airspace.

Where we once benefitted from the open discussion of collective experiences such as surge capacity depletion, languishing and pandemic flux syndrome, how are things in August 2022, have pandemic habits faded or bedded in for life?

Maybe there is no collective experience, with everyone’s dust settling in different places, but it’s worth the check-in and the chat.

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