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Back to not-so-normal: Psychologists eye pandemic stress as U.S. reopens

Some psychologists say there could be a connection between pandemic-related mental health issues and behavioral changes that are starting to manifest across the country.
Illustration of a woman screaming as Covid-19 spores float near her.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Marie-Christine Nizzi, a postdoctoral researcher at Dartmouth College and the Brain Institute at Chapman University, studies trauma and resilience, which includes how the brain handles stress — and, sometimes, doesn't handle it.

It's the latter that is particularly timely. With many Americans inching toward normalcy, psychologists like  her are keeping a close eye on how the mental weight of the pandemic is showing up in society — even if the worst is months behind most people.

Nizzi, who has been working on a survey of Americans' mental health since April of last year, said the pandemic has caused many Americans to develop chronic stress, which could lead to them behaving more aggressively in their daily lives.

"People can't have an emergency stress response that stays the same forever, so they convert from an acute stress response to a chronic stress response,"  she said. "As the stress becomes chronic, their ability to cope with all of the changes is starting to be overwhelmed."

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on Americans' mental health since the first cases were recorded at the beginning of last year. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey from December found 42 percent of Americans reported experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression, a major increase from the 11 percent  who reported experiencing those symptoms prior to the pandemic. 

Psychologists are worried about the ramifications, and some say there could be a connection between these mental health issues and behavioral changes that are starting to manifest across the country. There have been many reports of people behaving aggressively on airplanes over the past several months, for example, and Nizzi said this could be a result of people struggling with chronic stress and anxiety. There has also been a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, domestic violence and more that could be partially, but not entirely, tied to poor mental health conditions in the U.S., she added.

Nicole Schramm-Sapyta, associate professor of the Practice at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, said it's been difficult for people to cope with so much uncertainty in their lives.

"We have seen, during the pandemic, increases in domestic violence and nondomestic violence and just people being too caught with each other and lashing out," she said. "Certainly anxiety, depression and PTSD can be both causes and results of all of those things," she said, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Uri Maoz, an assistant professor of computational neuroscience and psychology at Chapman University who has been working with Nizzi, said it's important to note that the pandemic isn't the only thing causing stress and anxiety. The preliminary data from the survey he conducted with Nizzi has found temporary increases in self-reported anxiety after things like the murder of George Floyd, a chaotic presidential election and other major events that have happened during the pandemic. 

Nizzi said things won't just go back to normal once the pandemic is under control in the U.S. and everything's open again. People who are currently dealing with chronic stress, anxiety or PTSD could very well be dealing with it for quite some time.

"What we're likely to see as people 'return back to normal' is that it's not going to feel normal. They're not going to feel normal,"  she said. "We're setting people up for failure by saying 'we're back to normal.' Are we? What exactly is 'back to normal'? The beach is open. OK. How does that impact the fact that I'm processing an entire year of a lot of things going wrong?"

Nizzi and others said it's important that the U.S. increase its investments in mental health services so that the many people who are struggling with mental health issues right now can hopefully get the help they need. She said this shouldn't just be "swept under the rug" once the country has reopened and things look like they're back to the way they were, because many will still be facing a difficult situation.

Soo Jeong Youn, a research psychologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said that's the main message she hopes people take away from this situation. She said the U.S. wasn't dedicating enough resources to mental health before the pandemic, and even more resources are needed now.

"This is not going away,"  she said. "These long-term effects are not going away."