Many people have excitedly awaited the COVID-19 vaccine as a step toward feeling protected and safer to return to a life that looks a bit more “normal.” The idea of getting vaccinated to prevent serious illness and death from this virus holds great promise as a relief from so much stress and worry of the past year. Yet many people are experiencing a new kind of stress after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
Once vaccinated and beyond the 2-week window of efficacy, the journey begins for each of us to re-establish normal living. After a year of living with COVID-19 restrictions, there are many new decisions to be made. Initially, we may feel great excitement and hope as we plan get-togethers with the people we’ve missed and imagine resuming activities and events that had been out of reach for a year. But as these possibilities become a reality, we are once again grappling to decide which behaviors feel safe now. Can we have dinner with friends unmasked? Should I go to the store during peak times? Is it safe for my kids to play at the park unmasked? We second guess ourselves and feel guilt after a social event. Was that a safe party to attend? Did we put ourselves or others at risk by going to that event? Are people judging me as too risky, too paranoid, too introverted?
There is a great deal of unexpected stress that comes with transitioning our lives from pandemic lockdown fear to vaccine hope. Psychologist describe stress as anything that requires us to make adjustment in our daily lives. We readily identify stressful triggers that are difficult events like a diagnosis of a medical illness, job loss, relationship conflict, or financial strain. However, stressful triggers can also be positive events like a promotion, going on vacation, moving to a new home, or financial gains. Any event that requires us to shift out of our routines and make adjustments in how we think or feel about our world will naturally create a stress response in the body and mind.
The COVID-19 vaccine is one of these good stressors that causes us to make new adjustments. We must rethink how we live our lives. We must negotiate new decisions about our social obligations, work demands, and family events. This puts us out of what had become our familiar zone. Activities that used to be familiar now feel like a strain or awkward. We simply didn’t have much practice with social skills and activities outside the home. It feels like more effort to sustain casual conversations or make small talk. We may be feeling greater pressure to attend social events and resume busy family and work schedules. We must again navigate tricky conversations with family, friends, and neighbors as we discuss what everyone feels safe doing.
COVID-19 stay-at-home orders had some unforeseen benefits that we may be reluctant to give up. Work expectations may be changing and we may have mixed feelings about transitioning back to in person interactions. This takes an transition requires effort, even though it used to be familiar. Many people who never had travel or social anxiety in the past have found new discomfort when faced with a trip or social event. And those who are familiar with travel and social anxiety are often feeling greater intensity of these challenges after a year of avoiding them.
We may also be surprised by feelings of disappointment and sadness when our life with the COVID-19 vaccine still differs in important ways from our pre-pandemic life. Attending events with masks, social distancing, and smaller numbers may still feel frustrating. We may be craving the comfort of not worrying about airborne infections as we intermingle with friends and strangers. So the COVID-19 safe graduation ceremony, funeral, or exercise class may feel close to what we miss from our old lives while still missing some essential element. And we are left feeling dissatisfied and somehow more unfulfilled.
This stress has a significant effect on our bodies and minds. Exhaustion is a common first sign of this stress. We are taxing our minds as we debate all of these new decisions and revive our social skills. Sleep may be disturbed. Muscle tension resulting pain and headaches are more common. Many people describe increased irritability and mood swings. Our concentration and memory may be suffering. Children, who are also experiencing this stress, may display more acting out behaviors and emotional outbursts. If you are experiencing these discomforts, you are not alone. Understanding and coping with this stress is key to moving through this transition with a bit less distress.
Stress Coping Strategies
Recognize your own signs of stress. It’s important that each of us take the time to check in with how we’re feeling regularly to remain aware of when we’re feeling increased stress. We each will have our own red flags. Observe your body and behavior to recognize whether you’re someone who feels stress as a racing heartbeat, backache, insomnia, over-eating, restlessness, jaw clenching, irritability, or any of the many other ways our bodies experience stress. Know what your signs are so you can monitor how they change throughout the day or week. This will allow you to more effectively intervene with your stress while it’s at a manageable level rather than waiting until you hit overwhelm. The articles below provide some useful guidance for coping with stress.
Set aside time for rest. We may feel so excited to fill our schedules with activities that we’ve been missing that we end up feeling over-extended and exhausted. Plan ahead for more rest than you think you’ll need. Give yourself a day of quiet to recover after social events. Go to bed early. Create a bedtime routine that is soothing and consistent. Schedule brief breaks in your day of quiet and stillness. Your body will better recover from stress when you have plenty of rest throughout your days rather than waiting to crash into bed late at night.
Prioritize your social engagements and activities. You don’t need to say yes to every opportunity that comes your way. Start slowly as you focus on the people and activities you’ve missed most during this past year. Resist the urge to fulfill every social obligation that comes your way. You are still permitted to have boundaries and say no. Even when you’re not concerned about health risks or COVID-19 infections, it’s okay to choose to opt out of activities that will drain you. Many people observed that one of the unexpected benefits of quarantining has been a release from social obligations and constant busyness. We can learn from this experience to protect a balance in our daily lives.
Create a plan that you can stick to for awhile. During a time when you’re feeling calm and clear headed, sit down and write out what type of activities feel safe for you and your family based on good science and reliable resources. It’ll be a useful guide for the moments when you’re feeling anxious or pressured. You won’t need to constantly question or debate your decisions when you run each one past your plan. Only revise the plan during moments when you again feel calm and are adjusting your plan based on new information from a source you trust.
Practice grace and patience. It’s helpful to set low expectations as you slowly figure out what feels safe for now. It’s okay to change your mind as you take in new information or try things out. You don’t need to jump into the deep end right away. Envision gradually stepping into a new chapter of your daily life, so you can adjust slowly and pause when you need to. It’s important to offer this same grace and understanding to the people in our lives who are adjusting as well. No one has it all figured out and we’re all learning as we go. We do not need to waste energy judging others or fearing judgement. We can allow one another to work through this new phase in our own ways and at our own paces.
Now that we recognize that even wonderful opportunities, like the health benefits of the COVID-19 vaccine, can create stress for our bodies and minds, we can learn to effectively cope with these changes. With compassionate self-care it is possible to manage this unexpected stress of life with the COVID-19 vaccine while still gently opening up your social world and creating a new normal.
Written by Suzanne J. Smith, Ph.D. for Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, wellness, perinatal mood, relationships, or parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling a consultation for an appointment with Dr. Smith, please email email@example.com.