Frustrated? Fed up? Covid uncertainty takes its toll

Nearly two years of uncertainty, frustration and fear have knock on effects for our mental health

A recent survey found 80 per cent of people felt a lower level of social connectedness as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Photograph: iStock

Fatigue and frustration are two of the strongest emotions people are feeling as we approach the second Christmas of the Covid-19 pandemic. The surveys show it and we feel it ourselves as we grapple with our inability to make solid plans for the festive season while we await the research to verify the severity of this new Omicron variant.

Referring to the lifting and reimposing of Covid-19 restrictions, psychologist and musician Louize Carroll says the experience of "getting your hopes up and getting them dashed, getting your hopes up again and getting them dashed again is far more damaging and hurtful than a consistent state where we can't do things".

Carroll believes the “escalation of rage and blame” stems from our need to be in control, and that social media in particular is an inadequate outlet for our frustrations. “It gives us a sense of purpose when we can point the finger and be exasperated by this and land the blame on someone’s doorstep. That helps us feel somewhat anchored and somewhat in control but it also takes us away from connection with ourselves. There has been a lot of talking but not enough listening.”

The recent Healthy Ireland survey found that 80 per cent of people felt a lower level of social connectedness as a result of the pandemic and 30 per cent of people said their mental health had suffered.

Louize Carrol, psychologist and band member of The Blizzards, believes the ‘escalation of rage and blame’ stems from our need to be in control

Carroll says that in order to cope better with all the uncertainty and to survive emotionally, we have to face into the pain and suffering. “If we don’t do this, we lose that inner knowing. The way to survive this is connection with ourselves and with other people. Facing difficulties has always been part of life,” she says.

Prof Martin Cormican, bacteriologist at NUI Galway and national lead for antimicrobial resistance at the HSE, agrees that there is a lot of pandemic fatigue. "People tend to become impatient and cross and there are things we don't want to hear any more. It's easy to notice those who are angry and upset but there is a huge number of people bearing up and getting on with it and they don't make much noise. Young people in particular – who are less impacted [by the virus] have borne a lot for older people. They are worn out and want a bit of their lives back."

Worry doesn't make you any safer. It's about how we balance fear <br/>

Prof Cormican says that communication about the threat of Covid-19 has been as much about “managing fear as managing the spread of infection during a time of great uncertainty”.

“Some people have stopped hearing the message and aren’t careful enough, and others are too frightened,” he says.

He argues that fear is a powerful motivator of behaviour change. “Fear makes us callous as we become afraid for ourselves and those we love and it makes us discount the concerns of others. Blame comes from fear. Fear also can be difficult to control and switch off and may drive people towards counter-productive and damaging behaviours which are disproportionate to the risk,” he says.

Prof Cormican says he is often asked, should we be worried? “I say, you should be careful. Worry doesn’t make you any safer. It’s about how we balance fear. Some people have taken a level of precaution that doesn’t materially reduce their risk yet it harms their lives. I’m talking about people who were so afraid to leave their houses, shut down their lives and stopped taking exercise and gained weight.”

He argues that there has been too much emphasis on scientific facts and not enough on reasoning.

Prof Martin Cormican agrees that there is a lot of pandemic fatigue. Photograph: Colin Keegan/ Collins

“If you oversimplify the message, you create the impression that there is greater certainty than there is, which creates the risk that we have to change what we say. Policy and practice has to change as evidence changes.”

The public’s intolerance of uncertainty – and our impatience for action once certainty has been found – is one of the hardest things that scientists and public health doctors have had to deal with during the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet scientists need to be able to communicate what’s known, what’s partially known, what’s unknown and what’s not knowable.

Prof Maria Baghramian from the School of Philosophy in University College Dublin says the difficulty during the pandemic is that scientists have to work with huge uncertainty and urgency at the same time. "Honest and trustworthy scientific experts lay out their findings, based on the available evidence and their best understanding of it. It's the translation of scientific findings to public policy that creates the need for a simple, direct and effective message," she says.

She believes that a message of “this is what we currently know” is both truthful and more effective. But she adds: “I think it’s important both for the policy makers and their expert advisers not to underestimate people’s intelligence and not to revert to a paternalistic language of ‘experts know best’.”

Overall, Prof Baghramian is impressed by how people in Ireland have coped with the pandemic and the medical advice conveyed. “The high levels of vaccination, the forbearance shown in the face of restrictions and the absence of the type of polarisation that has bedevilled so many other countries is a great source of hope in this bleak time for the world,” she says.

Professor Maria Baghramian from the School of Philosophy in UCD is impressed by how people in Ireland have coped with the pandemic

Once the pandemic is over, Prof Cormican believes most people will revert to their usual behaviours. “There will be people who are fearful for years to come but the majority of people will go back to the way we used to live as quickly as they possibly can. Look how quickly people were ready to travel internationally again. Hopefully, we can keep some of the greater awareness of infection,” he says.

Carroll, who is a band member of The Blizzards and co-founder of Prism Therapy Online, personally feels the impact of the loss of spontaneity and sense of adventure. “Leaning in to safety and stability is a way to cope but there has to be a balance – especially for young people whose scope for adventure has been curbed. The positive anticipation of going out to meet people has become shrouded in risk – you ask yourself, did you do your antigen test? Are you going to get infected?”

She also says that as well as those who lost their livelihoods due to the pandemic, there have been many others who have quit their jobs. “It’s about purpose and connectedness. Musicians are really struggling with a loss of purpose and belonging. When you take that away, you have got a lot of broken people,” she says.

Some young people have experienced great losses – both in terms of their educational and career development. Prof Cormican believes there will be lasting educational and health inequalities once the pandemic is over. “Inequalities were increased during the pandemic. There will be people whose whole lives will be marked by the pandemic. One of the big challenges will be to address these health and educational inequalities when the pandemic is over,” he says.

Peter Lunn, the head of the Economic and Social Research Institute's behavioural research unit has also said there will be a knock-on effect for people's psychological wellbeing. Citing examples of financial restraint following people's experience of a severe recession, he says: "If you go through an extended period that demands a change in behaviour where everybody is affected and there is a degree of trauma, there tends to be a long-term impact."

You can make your life miserable for very little additional gain <br/>

Meanwhile, Prof Cormican has some simple guidance for people making decisions about their social activities over Christmas. “Last year, I said meet people you trust your life with and my message is the same this year. I will see a relatively small number of people who are important to me – who will be doing their best to keep me and themselves safe. I don’t intend to see people who are not important to me. If you follow the general guidance most of the time and are vaccinated, you will be safe most of the time. There are no guarantees that you won’t get Covid over Christmas but you can make your life miserable for very little additional gain. It’s about looking after your whole person and the people you care about.”