When my letter had not been delivered by the following evening I had a meltdown, raging at Blue Cross Blue Shield, FedEx — and, truthfully, all the other defeats of the past nine months: the shuttered restaurants and gyms, canceled vacation plans, and unmasked neighbors.
I know I’m not alone, as I see pandemic frustration all around me. At my reopened gym, a fellow walked around muttering existentially, “I’m completely lost.” A friend relayed to me that she’d asked her neighbor — very nicely — to stop letting his dog use her lawn as a bathroom. He went ballistic. (And two days later he apologized, mortified at his outburst). A colleague summed up the state of things this way, “I tend to think I’m doing okay and then I fly into an unholy rage.”
While this “unholy” state of mind is not — yet — in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the DSM-5, the medical bible for mental health conditions), it has a name on Google: “pandemic frustration.” A report this summer from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that more than 2 in 5 U.S. residents are “struggling with mental or behavioral health issues associated with the . . . pandemic,” including anxiety, depression, increased substance use and suicidal thoughts.
At the same time, the pandemic has dragged on from one season to the next — and now to yet another. In the spring, it seemed we were engaged in a sprint; if we did all the right things (masking, distancing, handwashing), we’d be free and clear in a matter of months. But it’s become clear this is a marathon — although with a vaccine light at the end of the tunnel — and our fear of the coronavirus has morphed into our frustration with it, which experts say will lead to complacency and denial, and a surge in cases — all of which is happening.
Travis Westbrook, a clinical psychologist at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, recently wrote a blog post titled, “Why is COVID-19 making me so angry?” In an interview, he explained the pandemic has “become this chronic, several-months-long stressor that’s changed a lot of people’s routines,” which has reduced access to our usual coping mechanisms such as going to the gym, out to dinner, shopping and plain old fun. It’s “normal” he says for people to feel “more fatigued, more irritable, maybe . . . like their fuse is a bit shorter.” A new normal, perhaps, but not one that I like.
There’s definitely a hunger for solutions. Over the summer, Michael Rubin, a critical care neurologist and a medical ethicist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, led a well-attended online event called, “Pandemic Frustration Control.” In it, he focused on techniques for those “irritated” and frustrated by others who “seem to have no awareness or concern about their role in spreading this very dangerous disease in their community.” Besides Rubin, I’ve talked with a number of experts, and here’s what they say we can do now:
●Avoid unhealthy behaviors like drinking, smoking and overeating.
●Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s more difficult these days to exercise or stick to a diet, and you don’t need guilt on top of that, says Rubin, who admits he was “coping by overeating,” gaining 10 pounds early on.
●Find ways to adapt. Try home exercise routines, practice good sleep hygiene and make small dietary changes. Westbrook says taking a step in the right direction is better than thinking it’s all or nothing — and then doing nothing.
●Stay connected with people, even while physically distant. “Social support is a buffer against stress,” Westbrook says. Use text and email, videoconferencing calls, or socially distanced walks.
●Moderate your media consumption. It’s important to stay informed, but it’s common to feel overwhelmed by negative news, and there’s lots of that lately. Try a “media fast” for a day or two, or set limits on when you will read or listen, like first thing in the morning. Choose reputable sources.
●Take a break from social media. If you can’t go cold turkey, set limits. Skip Facebook and Twitter, maybe, and focus on Instagram, which has much less vitriol.
●Talk about how you are feeling with friends, family or a professional. Ask for help when you need it, Rubin says. There’s no shame in that.
My friends are finding their own ways to face “pandemic frustration,” including journaling, meditating, calling friends, crying, making lists, dancing, and cooking and baking. I’ve tried many of these. Still, despite all this advice, on too many days I still feel super frustration, and like my fuse is set to ignite.
Is there more to be done? Rubin suggests we dig deeper: “There’s definitely potential for people to use this as a watershed moment of reevaluating themselves, and figuring out by necessity new ways to cope with their life stress.”
He suggests people ask themselves two questions: “What changes do I need to make? And have I adapted as best as I can?”
His questions actually reminded me of the time I spent on a ranch, where I’d gone on a story assignment, with a horse whisperer. As a city boy, I was out of my comfort zone, especially with the task at hand: Get a horse to raise its hoof.
Over and over I approached the horse, at first talking nicely, then shouting at it. I tried to use my strength to lift its leg. Finally, the horse whisperer saw that I was ready to give up. He came over and told me, “When what you’re doing isn’t working, you need to try another approach,” a paraphrase of Rubin’s first question. He was right: I changed my demeanor and my body language, and marched right up to the horse who obliged by lifting its hoof after a quick tug.
I’m now trying to apply the same lesson to my current frustrations. How can I adapt better? To combat loneliness and isolation, I’ve started volunteering, virtually, with two organizations I care about. Since March, I’ve done a lot of baking, but now instead of eating my muffins, I’m becoming known as the “muffin man” as I share them with neighbors. I now feel more visible and connected to others, which is surprisingly calming.
And that scream I started this column with? Experts say that’s not a bad coping mechanism, either.
In Iceland the government launched a campaign, called Let It Out, to improve people’s moods during the pandemic. People worldwide were invited to record their screams online “to release their bottled-up frustrations,” which were then played via gigantic speakers in some of Iceland’s most remote locations. According to the project’s website, “screaming is a therapeutic tool and can be effective to release pent-up emotion.” I can’t cite a study for that but I can tell you it worked for me.
Oh, and remember my canceled health insurance? I later found out that happened because my credit card number had been stolen and I forgot to switch the billing to the new account. That’s what I’d call “pandemic muddle,” a topic for another time.