The rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is offering hope and a path out of the pandemic, but for most people, the vaccines can’t arrive fast enough and the anxiety accumulated over the past year continues to build. That, says Robert Bilder, PhD, chief of psychology at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, could lead, for many, to post-traumatic stress.
“At times like this, many people are experiencing levels of anxiety unlike anything they’ve experienced before,” Dr. Bilder says.
Beyond the sheer weight of the pandemic itself, “there are other levels of loss that people are experiencing. Many are grieving the loss of loved ones. Even more widespread is the loss of social contact. In contrast to our prior lives where human contacts occurred spontaneously every day, now it’s critical that we reach out to others intentionally, and build in the opportunity to be in touch with the people that we know.”
Such outreach has multiple benefits. “In part, it helps to shore up your own social network. But, in addition, you’re not only supporting others, you also are likely to gain quite a bit out of helping someone else,” Dr. Bilder says. “That provides an increase in the level of meaning and purpose to your own life.” Finding a purpose amid the crisis is key. “Being very explicit about what you find important and valuable, and doubling down your efforts on doing that, are very important,” Dr. Bilder says. “At the same time, it’s important not to put such a great burden on yourself that it’s unrealistic.”
Difficulty sleeping also has been a significant issue for many people during the pandemic. “It’s quite striking how many people reported, following the onset of the pandemic, that they were experiencing insomnia,” Dr. Bilder says.
To maintain more regular sleep cycles — appropriate rest being a key protective factor against COVID-19 — he recommends exercise and other activities programmed through the day, especially outside, in the sunlight, safely distanced from others. He also recommends decreasing exposure to blue/green light, one of the causes of insomnia, at the end of the day. Blue/ green light is emitted by smartphones and other common electronic devices. “When you think about all the good things you might be able to do for your immune system, getting good sleep is one of the key things,” he says.
Ultimately, Dr. Bilder believes that the pandemic will have a dramatic impact on society. “It feels like it’s a part of the grand arc of history, and one that I hope pushes us toward a greater sense of community and spirit, and that forges a more collectivist alliance for the greater good,” he says. He views the current circumstance as “part of the pressure that helps us all realize that we have bigger common enemies than we have bigger differences among us.”
And he believes that once stayat- home orders and distancing requirements are lifted, people will realize how much they’ve missed interacting with other humans. “There’s one silver lining to facing such existential threats, which supports us asking, ‘What is really important? What are the things and people I value the most?’” he says. “I think a lot of people now probably value more the personal contact and connections they used to take for granted.”