Why We’re Experiencing More Meltdowns Than Usual Right Now, and Why That’s Totally OK

It’s pretty well documented that disease outbreaks, like what we’ve experienced during the past year and a bit with covid, commonly cause increased moments of anxiety, panic, depression, anger, confusion, uncertainty and financial stress. 

The Black Dog Institute estimates that 25% to 33% of the community experience high levels of worry and anxiety during pandemics, but often, those symptoms don’t always show in the moment. Sometimes, they creep up on us later.

In the moment, we may feel as though we’re handling the chaos really well and when it’s passed, we think it’s over. We’ve gotten away with not totally processing our complex and slightly scary emotions. 

But then a few weeks, a few months, or sometimes a few years later, something will happen and all the emotions will come out. Sometimes it’ll be obvious where they came from or what they mean, and other times, it’ll be totally confusing, unexpected and not at all what you thought you were feeling. 

At the moment, things feel pretty intense. There’s a lot of residual stress from the ordeal that was COVID, and a lot of readjusting with the cogs of the world slowly grinding again.

Things that normally wouldn’t send us over the edge are totally sending us over the edge. Things like public transport breaking down, or your bottle of water spilling all through your bag, forgetting to pay a bill and getting a late fee, or maybe your friends preferring to hang out with their partners… normal, adult life things that may usually frustrate us for an hour tops, are sending us into a downward emotional spiral.

Welcome to the post-pandemic meltdown. Have you had yours yet?

Although COVID is far from over, we’ve come a long way since last year. There is less fear sitting in the air, less tense eye contact when going to the local shops, less suspense while watching political press conferences. Despite this, many of us are feeling our mental health slip; we’re feeling like we’re in a slump, or a low period, which is way worse than what we experienced last year. But why now?

“People have been living under duress for more than 12 months, and humans aren’t built for long-term stress. Not only was the possibility of contracting or passing on covid a major stressor, the huge changes to our day to day lives, as well as our sense of freedom and agency, was deeply impacted,” says psychologist, psychotherapist and Director of Rough Patch, Amber Rules.

“Many people spent so many months just hanging in there the best they could, coping, making temporary solutions, pushing through things they wouldn’t usually have to – now that the level of intensity has reduced for most Australians and people can relax and ‘loosen their grip’, so to speak, it’s very normal to be feeling wobbly.”

Although a lot of people took the ‘downtime’ COVID provided to give attention to things that would otherwise be pushed aside, the lockdown was also a time when many of us felt the need to distract ourselves. 

Some people distracted themselves with crafts or television shows, while others distracted themselves with cleaning their house, or walking the dogs or cooking extravagant meals. These things can be appreciated and enjoyed, especially if these are things we don’t always have time to do when life is busy, but they can also be distractions to how we’re truly dealing with our surroundings. 

Lockdowns and COVID restrictions were also there as things to blame for the way that we were feeling during that time, which is an easy way of not properly dealing with an emotion; blaming it on something else.

“I think it’s very possible that people pushed their problems and emotions aside to cope during the worst of COVID,” Rules agrees. 

“We didn’t have any choice but to get on and cope, and one of the clever ways we do this is by pushing difficult feelings to one side in order to survive. Now that the danger has mostly passed, it’s safe (from a biological perspective) to relax, and our bodies are readjusting to life with less danger.

“If you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a bit like being chased by a lion – we’re wired to get out of the way of danger quickly to survive, but once the danger has passed, we get a flood of mixed feelings and reactions such as crying, shaking, vomiting, disassociating, laughing. It’s our body’s way of processing the experience.”

Sounds pretty familiar to me right now. I am – like a lot of people – finding myself experiencing more emotional instability, anxiety and stress than I did during the Melbourne COVID lockdowns. It’s seemingly come out of nowhere, but it’s actually a very normal (if slightly delayed) reaction to what we’ve experienced in this past year and a bit.

Amber encourages us to accept these moments of emotional instability and not feel ashamed of them.

“This is totally normal, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. You’re not the only one feeling this way and there’s no rule book about how a pandemic should or shouldn’t affect us. If you need support, even if you think it’s “not that bad”, get some! It’s likely you’ll bounce back quicker and feel more resilient if you talk to a counsellor about what you’re feeling and learn some skills to help you cope.”

Even if you’re feeling a bit weird and don’t know why, it’s totally OK to not understand yourself all the time. The best thing to do is recognise and acknowledge how you’re feeling, and allow yourself to feel it. 

“In my experience, it’s very common for the majority of people not to understand why they feel the way they do,” Rules explains.

“It can take a great deal of self-discovery and insight to know why we feel the way we do about certain things, and even people who’ve done lots of therapy or self-reflection can struggle to understand their feelings a lot of the time.”

And you can start small. If these feelings sound familiar, you can start by making some minor changes in your life that can help you cope during moments of meltdown.

“Start simple with things like eating often enough, drinking enough water, getting enough sleep. Consider ways you can take things off your plate,” Rules suggests.

“Ask for help from a trusted person where possible. Ask for advice or collaboration when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Simplify life where you can. Be gentle, understanding and compassionate with yourself. See a therapist for support and ideas.”

And most of all, be kind to yourself.

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