At times, Terri Corcoran can’t contain her frustration. “It makes me so furious when I see the news that I scream, ‘Fuck you, Covid!’ ” the retired writer and editor from Northern Virginia says. “I am so sick of this — so discouraged that it won’t get better because of the people who won’t get vaccinated. I am 70. I have spent almost two years virtually alone now. [I] was starting to get out more after being vaccinated, and now I’m feeling like a prisoner again.”
After her husband’s death in January 2016, Corcoran slowly rebuilt her life — filling her days with volunteer work and socializing with friends. That is, until Covid hit. “In March 2020, the pandemic wiped it all away, and I felt like my husband had just died again, and I was left with an empty life,” she tells Rolling Stone. “Many times over the past year I have just wanted to be dead.”
To make matters worse, Corcoran’s adult children are Covid deniers. “That has broken my heart,” she says. “We are living in science fiction, and I have lost all hope for humanity. Only my belief in God keeps me functioning.”
Recent insights from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on the unprecedented transmissibility of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 — resulting in the agency abandoning their ill-conceived honor-system masking guidelines instituted in May — have pushed Corcoran and many others beyond the point of frustration. That includes Kelly Shoul, a wedding photographer based in Colorado. Not only does the increased risk of the Delta variant pose a threat to Shoul’s business for a second year in a row, but several of her friendships — along with her mental health — are also in jeopardy.
“I still have people close to me who won’t get the vaccine because ‘they don’t trust it,’ and I see posts from people I went to high school with saying, ‘Sorry, I ain’t putting a mask on again for no one,’ ” Shoul tells Rolling Stone. “I can’t even put into words just how ignorant and frustrating that is. I have a hard time even wanting to be friends with these individuals any longer. The lack of empathy is incredible.”
The realization that the Delta variant is altering the course of the pandemic — deviating from the timeline we had hoped for and come to expect — isn’t sitting well. But it’s more than that.
This is the second time in two years that we’ve faced a future of uncertainty because of this virus. The difference is that this time, we have the knowledge and tools to save ourselves. But thanks to people who steadfastly refuse to use them — some of whom actively spread conspiracy theories and misinformation about Covid vaccines and the effectiveness of masking — we’re still nowhere near the finish line.
And unlike the beginning of the pandemic, we now know that Covid-19 doesn’t always end in either a full, timely recovery or death. An estimated 10 to 25 percent of those infected by the virus face the grab bag of physical, mental, and/or neurological symptoms associated with long-Covid — some of which can be debilitating, and last more than a year.
This time, our biggest threat isn’t a virus never-before-seen in humans: it’s the people who continue to prioritize their own perceived “rights” over human lives — including their own. Feelings of anger, frustration, fear, and disappointment that have been simmering for months are now boiling over. We’re in the midst of the next wave of the Covid mental health crisis.
The Delta variant is bad news for our mental health, too
If the current surge in Covid-19 cases has coincided with the decline of your own mental well-being, you’re not alone. In fact, it’s a trend that Dr. Dion Metzger, a psychiatrist practicing in Atlanta, has recently observed among her patients. “People are first noticing difficulty sleeping, irritability with loved ones, and even decreased productivity at work,” she tells Rolling Stone. “They then realize it’s the disappointment of the next chapter of the pandemic approaching that is contributing to these mood symptoms.”
Similar to what happened at the beginning of the pandemic, anxiety has become a serious problem for many people — including those who had never experienced it before. “As humans, we thrive when we feel safe and secure, yet the ongoing and unpredictable nature of the pandemic has made inconsistency and a lack of safety the new, unhealthy normal,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist practicing in Sonoma County, California.
As a result, our fight-or-flight response is constantly triggered, leaving us mentally and physically exhausted and stressed. “Our natural, instinctive physiological fear reaction to the ongoing threat of Covid and an ever-changing world leaves us perpetually on edge,” Manly tells Rolling Stone.
And like the anxiety we experienced in early 2020, Metzger says that we’re once again facing what she calls the “sudden doom” effect. “In the spring of this year, we thought the worst was behind us, as events started to be rescheduled, more people were getting vaccinated, and mask mandates were being lifted,” she explains. “It appeared that we were approaching the light at the end of the tunnel. Delta is a whole new tunnel that we had no idea we would enter.”
Identifying our anger and frustration
Along with the return of heightened levels of anxiety, over the past few weeks, Metzger has witnessed patients dealing with intense frustration over the possibility of having to go back into pandemic hibernation, as well as the ongoing mask debate (now with nearly a year-and-a-half of bitterness behind it). “It is definitely frustrating when we look over what could have been done to prevent the predicament we’re in, including everyone’s choices about masks, vaccines, and quarantines,” she explains.
But there is one group in particular Metzger says people cite as a major source of their anger and anxiety. “I have seen a rise specifically in people dealing with feelings of resentment and blame towards those who chose not to get vaccinated,” she notes. “The anger is valid. They’re feeling they did their part, and felt [that] everyone else should have followed suit. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work like that, and we can’t force anyone to take a vaccine.”
Kerry Phillips, a public relations executive living in South Florida, falls into that category. She says that along with fear and anxiety, the anger she has been experiencing towards people who refuse to be vaccinated has been detrimental to her mental health. “While I understand some are waiting for full FDA authorization, or may need to discuss the risks and benefits [of the vaccine] with their medical team, I am angry about the misinformation many believe to justify not getting the vaccine,” Phillips tells Rolling Stone. “It’s very frustrating dealing with people who continue to spew quack-pot theories they heard on YouTube, or those who insist on taking the Bible out of context to justify their ignorance.”
A return to uncertainty, and the fear that comes with it
While fear can play an important role in alerting us to potential threats to our safety, when our brain has to work overtime to differentiate between actual and perceived threats — as it does in situations involving uncertainty — Manly says that it can cause our stress levels and anxiety to increase. “Fear — both conscious and unconscious — is an increasingly destructive force in society right now,” the author of Joy From Fear tells Rolling Stone. “Whether we acknowledge it or not, the Delta variant is a reminder that new threats may be on the horizon. This new strain is highly symbolic of the uncertain times we live in.”
This is true for Phillips, who, in addition to processing her anger, is also dealing with fear, and the resulting anxiety. And living in Florida — the epicenter of the current outbreak — isn’t helping. “I worry about my family getting sick, especially my child,” she says. “I worry about friends. I worry about the people dying unnecessarily. I worry about the long-term effects of the pandemic — things I’d started to relax about once numbers had started dropping nationwide.”
Complicating matters further is the expectation that we pretend everything is fine, carrying on and functioning as though all is going according to plan, and we’re not consumed with fear, anxiety, and dread. “The internal and external pressure to move forward as if our lives are not being upended once again adds an additional layer of stress and anxiety,” Manly says. Plus, it’s exhausting.
Grieving our past, present, and future
Meanwhile, grief continues to erode our mental well-being. In addition to mourning the deaths of friends and family members, as well as the 617,000 lives lost to the novel coronavirus in the U.S. alone, we’re still processing other types of losses.
“We are grieving our pre-2020 lives, where the first day of school wasn’t with masks in tow, or getting tickets to a concert was done without hesitation,” Metzger explains. “We are grieving our previous routine both socially and even at work. And as popular as working from home is for many, there are quite a few people who miss being in the office and the social interaction it provides.”
According to Dr. Marissa King, professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, our social connections are one of the most important predictors of our overall sense of happiness and well-being, and realizing that was one of the lessons we learned from the first wave of the pandemic. “For many people, the past few months have been a reminder of the joy of connection, and have created a sense of hope about the possibility of reconnecting,” King tells Rolling Stone. “It’s the loss of hope — and fear of losing even more of our social connections — that are making the resurgence of Covid so difficult.”
This is the case for Jenni Walker, a marketing director in Orange County, California. Despite her typical glass-half-full approach to life, Walker says that the latest pandemic developments are getting her down. Now, Walker — a self-described “extrovert and optimist” — says that she’s “mildly depressed about the new variant,” the realization that “we may never be fully safe,” and the impact Delta may have on her opportunities for much-needed social interaction.
“When the vaccine arrived, there was this sense of, ‘We made it!’ and the stress I didn’t even realize I was holding onto began to evaporate,” she explains. “I met up with vaccinated friends, my husband and I began going on more dates, and we finally took our kids back to the park.” Now, that’s all up in the air.
Strategies for navigating the current circle of pandemic hell
One of the reasons why the recent Delta variant news has hit us so hard is that at this point, we’re all at a loss as far as how to deal with the ongoing challenges to our mental health. So much of the advice doled out during the early days of the pandemic — think Zoom happy hours and adding a “fake commute” to your workday — now feels comically outdated and woefully insufficient. We’ve tried being resilient. We’ve tried having rational conversations with friends and family members about the importance of vaccines and face masks. We are long out of fucks to give. Now what?
To start with, Metzger advises staying away from debates about the Covid vaccine, which, she says, often lead to further resentment and frustration. “Although you may be angry, I urge people to avoid having the conversation for their own mental health,” she says. “If it is not going to be helpful and [will] leave both people more upset, what’s the point?” Instead, Metzger suggests turning your focus to making the best choices for you and your family. “This may mean cancelling plans with unvaccinated loved ones, or leaving a public place where no one is wearing masks,” she explains. “You have to do what’s best for your safety.”
Additionally, Manly recommends giving yourself the opportunity to experience and validate your emotions — including normalizing your response to what’s essentially been a nonstop avalanche of bad news. “If you are feeling angry, irritated, worried, sad, or scared, allow yourself to feel your feelings,” she says. “Rather than covering up your emotions, pause to notice your emotional state. Rather than pushing yourself, or ignoring any stress and anxiety that arises, remember that your threat response is being overactive in order to protect you.”
Finally, both Metzger and Manly stress the importance of reaching out for support when you need it. “If you feel that your symptoms of sadness, exhaustion, or nervousness are creeping in, don’t hesitate to contact a mental health professional — we are aware of the impact the Delta variant news can have on everyone’s mental health,” Metzger says. “We were getting our hopes up, and now we are left feeling deflated again. It’s an emotional rollercoaster.”
Suicide is preventable. If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.