5 mental health tips as we wait for the pandemic to end

Things will likely improve in the coming months. Here’s how to get through the hard part.
Tina Scarborough, a RN with AdventHealth, prepares to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at the AdventHealth Tampa distribution tent, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 in Tampa.
Tina Scarborough, a RN with AdventHealth, prepares to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at the AdventHealth Tampa distribution tent, on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020 in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 21, 2020|Updated Jan. 15, 2021

After a long, isolating year, hope is in sight with vaccines arriving in Florida hospitals and nursing homes. But as exciting as the idea of pandemic-free life sounds, the end could still be months away.

“Anytime that you have something as big as this pandemic has been, and you start to hear that there might be a light at the end of the tunnel, people are going to anticipate that,” said Dr. Ryan Wagoner, vice chairman for clinical services at USF Health Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences. “There’s that surge of, ‘This is finally going to be over.’”

Wagoner says it’s normal if you feel a bit of a slump after the initial excitement of seeing vaccines roll out. He compares it to waiting for an online shopping order and then finding out the package has been delayed.

“You’re still excited about it coming in,” he said. “But there’s obviously that sense of letdown in that you still have to wait for it. And so of course, people are going to get stressed and feel anxious about that.”

As we anticipate improvements in 2021, here are some tips for getting through vaccine limbo.

Set short term goals and rewards

Experts estimate that the coronavirus vaccines won’t be widely available until at least March or April. Surveys show that a number of health care employees are wary of the quickly-developed shots, and many people may wait even longer to get their immunizations.

Related: Tampa Bay health workers first to get coronavirus vaccine, but many say they’ll pass

“It’s all well and good to look forward to early spring when the vaccine might be widespread,” Wagoner said. “However, it’s also really important to focus on things that you can accomplish in little bites.”

Instead of fixating on how long things are taking, immerse yourself in achieving small goals. Focus on finishing a home improvement project. Don’t forget to set a reward, such as treating yourself to takeout.

Practice moderation with social media and news

There’s more encouraging news about medical advances than during earlier points in the pandemic, from the vaccine rollouts to the FDA approving at-home coronavirus tests. That good news comes mixed with reports of rising coronavirus cases and deaths. Even seeing posts from friends getting the vaccine can have a negative effect, Wagoner said.

“It’s helpful because it gets out there that the vaccine is safe, people are getting it,” he said. “But on the other hand, people who may not receive it for weeks to months from now, that may make them feel worse.”

Related: Coronavirus anxiety is real. Here are mental health tips to help.

You don’t have to quit Twitter cold turkey. Instead, set aside specific times to scroll (a morning check-in, during lunch, and once more in the evening). This gives you something to look forward to without overloading.

“If you need to be informed, great, but don’t let it consume you,” he said. “Because I do see that happened with folks, especially when they’re isolating, especially when they’re feeling stressed.”

Look forward to regaining consistency, not “returning back to normal.”

Pandemic routines like mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings won’t be with us forever. But fantasizing about getting back to how things used to be may set up an unrealistic expectation, Wagoner said. What most people crave is not going back in time, but getting consistency back into their life.

“We’re different people every single day, and so are we going to return to exactly like we were before all of this hit? Of course not,” he said. “There have been many things that have changed, some actually for the better.”

Wagoner recommends thinking about how to implement new things we’ve picked up in this pandemic lifestyle rather than trying to get back to how things used to be.

Related: Feeling holiday stress? Queer Eye’s Karamo Brown has tips to help you cope.

Don’t feel bad for saying no

You may have trouble convincing your family to hold off on hosting large gatherings or telling your friends to avoid crowded bars and indoor restaurants. If talking doesn’t help, you may have to remove yourself in that situation, which could end in hurt feelings.

“The biggest thing that I’ve found helpful is to emphasize what you yourself are comfortable with, and that that has nothing to do with the other people,” Wagoner said. “So it’s not that you don’t want to visit with your parents. It’s not that you don’t want to see your cousins.”

If you choose to stay away from friends and loved ones for health reasons, find ways to still spend time together from a distance. Call someone you haven’t spoken to in months. FaceTime your coworkers. Even try writing handwritten letters.

“Physical isolation does not equal social isolation,” he said. “You can still maintain contact even if you’re not in the same place.”

The idea of planning a getaway or buying tickets for an event in spring 2021 may be tempting. Wagoner said this isn’t a bad idea — but only if you don’t mind going with the flow.

“If you’re a person that finds that anytime a plan changes that upsets you or stresses you out, I probably wouldn’t recommend doing something like planning vacations in the summer, because there’s still a lot of unknowns,” he said.

Get help if you need it

Pay attention to your feelings and reach out if needed. Feeling some sadness and anxiety is normal, but if your appetite, sleep or energy levels are affected, get help.

To find a mental health professional, visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness website.

Additionally, the following 24/7 crisis hotlines provide free, confidential emotional support: