“There are a lot of people who are feeling burned out right now,” says Alison Holman, professor in the department of psychological science at the University of California, Irvine’s Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing. “There are a lot of people who are just toast.”
2020 was a year most of us would like to forget. During those 12 months, we endured:
- The worst pandemic in a century
- Racial strife and violence in America’s streets
- Several natural disasters
- A divisive presidential election
“It was really a difficult year for Americans,” Holman says. “I think there was a tremendous amount of stress.”
Perhaps nothing weighed on us more heavily than the pandemic, however.
In fact, 41% of Americans say the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental well-being. Members of Generation Z (55%) and baby boomers (44%) report being hit hardest, according to a survey by Edward Jones and Age Wave.
Signs that your mental health is in jeopardy
Many Americans soldiered through the pandemic and now are bouncing back quickly. But others are demoralized, especially health care workers who spent the past year fighting to keep people from dying in the COVID pandemic, Holman says.
“I think that Americans are sort of still coming out from underneath the craziness of the pandemic,” she says.
In normal times, people live through a continuum that looks back to the past, moves into the present and anticipates the future, Holman says.
However, the pandemic clouded our sense of the future, Holman says.
“A very important part of having good mental health for many people is having this sense of what’s next in my life — that there is something I’m moving toward,” Holman says. “The pandemic severely disrupted that.”
In addition, many people are experiencing the classic symptoms of burnout, including exhaustion and a reduced sense of purpose. For some, “there’s a lack of motivation to do anything, a feeling like, ‘What’s the point of doing anything?’” Holman says.
How to improve mental health post-pandemic
If your mental health is suffering a post-pandemic hangover, Holman says one of the best ways to get back on track is to reclaim your sense of the future.
Setting small goals and chasing them can help. “It requires you to think about and process in your mind what matters to you,” she says.
Picture a long-term goal you want to achieve and break it down into short-term steps that are achievable within a couple of days, or a week or two, Holman says.
If you fail to meet these short-term goals, look closely at why you may have failed, make some course corrections and try again.
“It gives you a sense of future,” she says. “It’s really important that people have a sense that there is a future that they are moving toward.”
Another way to boost your psychological health is to spend time with supportive family members and friends. Rather than rushing back to a busy social calendar, start slowly by engaging with those you love most.
“Maybe I just need to surround myself with the handful of people who are really supportive of me, and have always been really supportive of me,” Holman says. “And I’ll be supportive of them, and we’ll help each other get through this.”
Finally, Holman urges you to be compassionate toward yourself even if you struggle to regain your footing as you adjust to a more “normal” life and routine. Understand that healing from the psychological stress of the pandemic will take time.
“You’re not alone,” Holman says. “Lots of other people are going through what you’re going through. Sometimes people might not talk about it, but that doesn’t mean they’re not experiencing it.”