While we now know that some of spring’s hornier predictions for Hot Vax Summer were a bit overhyped, most everyone I know has actually had a pretty good one, myself included. As an introvert who spent the past year really locked down and who hates summer, I wasn’t totally sure how I’d feel being back in the world again. Turned out? I loved it. May, June, and July were more fun, healing, and exuberantly gay than I could have imagined; two shots of Pfizer had me feeling good and safe, and prioritizing the people who I bonded with the most during the pandemic ensured every hangout was a good one. I just felt so much lighter—like I finally set down the heavy bags I hadn’t totally known I was carrying.
But in the past few weeks, something has noticeably changed. I’m carrying those bags again, and while they aren’t quite as heavy as before, they aren’t nothing either. There’s a sense of ennui that I can’t quite pin down, and a not-insignificant amount of anxiety that doesn’t feel easy explained away by the existence of the Delta variant. Perhaps I’m languishing… but why now, when I’m fully vaccinated, healthy, and able to do pretty much all the things I’d like to? Sure, things are very bad right now… but the summer of 2020 was rough. At least now we have the highly effective vaccines going for us, right?
Therapist Sarah Paul said that, despite the genuinely positive developments in the past few months, a lot of her clients are feeling freshly bad. “I've started calling it vaxxed and anxious,” she told VICE. “For a long time, people were looking forward to getting the vaccine as a sense of security or safety, maybe the green light for getting back to their lives. And now we're saying—and seeing—that that's not really the case.”
Marissa Moore of Therapy Brooklyn echoed this. “It's kind of the collective cloud that's hanging over everybody,” she told VICE. “It does feel pretty pervasive.”
So, what’s the deal with this sudden-onset bad vibe? And what, if anything, can we do to feel a little better?
Why you might suddenly be feeling a sense of listlessness and apathy
Moore and Paul offered a lot of insight into what might be causing folks to feel sad, irritable, or just… not quite right. If that’s where you’re at, here are some factors that might be playing a role:
You’re still experiencing a stress response to the past 18 months. In March and April 2020, there was a collective sense of fear that sent a lot of people into fight-or-flight mode… and while that eventually leveled off for some folks, others remain hyper-activated. “Some of us have been in a stress response the entire time—we have not felt good, we have not felt safe… and we still kind of feel that way,” Paul said. “And so the first thing is recognizing that it is not normal to have to be under this amount of stress.” She said to remind yourself, It’s actually OK that I’m reacting this way. “We kind of [tell] ourselves, Oh, just get back to it. Things seem like they’re opening up in some places—why can’t I just live like I did? Well, because we’re traumatized. There’s so much that we haven’t even gotten to processing yet that we’re dealing with,” she said.
The “normal” you were eager to return to was always a fantasy—as was the “you” you expected to reappear. Moore said a lot of folks had very high hopes for this summer… and while a lot of people have been fortunate enough to experience a very special few months, it also makes sense that it would feel a bit different in practice than we’d imagined. “I think what people are realizing is that we've been profoundly impacted, and things have really shifted, such that the ‘normal’ that they thought they're returning to doesn't really feel the same way. And that’s been really hard,” she said.
You might also be feeling let down because your expectations for post-vax life were simply too high. “I think that people were wanting to put so much on this summer, and I don't think this summer could hold all of the expectations of what people wanted to be able to do,” Moore said. “We're all so fundamentally changed by what happened. The ‘you’ that would enjoy music festivals and going out is a different you; of course it's going to feel different.”
There’s not necessarily alignment between you and the people around you. Throughout this pandemic, friends, families, elected leaders, and public health officials have disagreed about the best path forward, and that’s still happening. So even though we have safe and widely available vaccines, there’s ongoing disagreement about masking, mandates, and indoor dining, and it’s not totally clear exactly how vaccinated people should be behaving. “There's so much comparison going on,” Paul said. “And people start feeling judged for their personal decisions, and it creates ambivalence and tension in relationships. So I think that it makes sense that people are feeling kind of blocked, and not really sure what the best way forward is.”
You survived COVID—and that’s changed how you see the world. There have been 38,193,758 known COVID cases in the U.S. thus far (I was one of them!), which is… a fuckton of people!!! (For context, the U.S. population is 332.6 million.) That means there are a lot of folks who might still be processing their personal experience with the virus. And even a mild case can bring the sort of stark reckoning with your own mortality that has lasting impact. Paul said it might be hitting a lot of millennials and Gen Z-ers extra hard because it’s the first time we’ve been in a situation where we’ve had to really and truly think, Oh... is this how it ends for me?
Paul said that after she got COVID in January, she went through something akin to the five stages of grief. “Then I realized: The reason I'm having this reaction is because I am terrified. Like, I am terrified. I'm terrified! I'm 30 and healthy, the picture of health from the outside, but… you don't know what's gonna happen,” she said. “I think that for people who had COVID, this time period hits even harder—because for me, what I think is, You don't understand. I had COVID and it was mild. People are dying every day from this—people are dying who are the same age as me, no underlying health conditions.’”
“Now going back into the social scene, where some of their friends did not have COVID, maybe didn't get hit hard by it at all, weren't really impacted by it, and are kind of lackadaisical about the Delta variant, or about all the all the news… we see a divide because they don't get it,” Paul continued. “They still don't understand how scary it can be to face your mortality, whether it's your own or loved one’s. It's not just like, you have COVID and you die, or you don't have COVID at all; there's so much middle ground that people don't even talk about.”
OK, so we know why people might be feeling this way. So… now what?
Don’t try to ignore or downplay how you’re feeling.
When your life is, by most standards, pretty good, it can be easy to dismiss any negative feelings you’re having. Maybe it’s just a bad week at work, or you’re just really tired, or you’ll feel a lot better once you wash your hair. And, sure, that might be the case! But if you’ve been feeling off for a few weeks or more—noticeably sad, on edge, unmotivated, hopeless, etc. in a way that feels out of character—pay attention to that. Even if you can’t quite translate the message your body is sending you right now amid the static, you know you’re hearing something; don’t brush that off.
For example, Paul said if you loved cooking throughout the pandemic, but suddenly you can’t get near the stove, that’s important. “That's your body telling you there's something off,” she said. She also said that trouble sleeping, difficulty sticking with your normal routine, and other anxious or depressive symptoms are worth taking seriously.
“If you don't love the things that you used to love, if you're having a hard time enjoying things… you might be experiencing a stress or trauma response,” Paul said. “And for people that haven't experienced heavy trauma in their lives, this might be the first time they're experiencing these heavy emotions.” (And even if you have had past trauma, know that it might manifest differently this time around.)
Also remember that you don’t need a “good” reason for feeling bad. You may be vaccinated and doing relatively well—e.g., you’re employed, you’re healthy, you’re safe—but that doesn’t mean you’re immune to unhappiness. As therapist Andrea Bonior told me in April 2020, “People think that being grateful for the fact that it's not worse means that they’re supposed to hide those uncomfortable emotions. But the opposite is true. It’s about going all in and actually experiencing the full range of human life rather than just saying, ‘Well, these emotions aren't acceptable.’”
Do what you can to create a little structure in your life.
If you’re feeling frustrated by the sameness of life with COVID—like, we’re literally still having the same fights about wearing masks in public spaces, are you fucking kidding me?!—it might seem counterintuitive to lean into monotony.
But Paul said routines can be really helpful in times of ongoing crisis. “As frustrating as [routines] can be to stick, they provide consistency,” she said. “And they set up your body for what to expect. So if you have a very stressful week coming up and you know that your morning routine includes at least 10 minutes of ‘you time’—meditation or journaling or something—you know that you have this system in place where you're creating time for yourself every morning. So no matter what follows after that, you know that you can control [this]. Routines really provide us with consistency to keep us going forward when we're not feeling our best.”
Of course, if you’re depressed or anxious, you might find it’s really hard to stick to a routine. But Paul said it’s worth re-thinking what constitutes a routine. “I'm just talking about, like, waking up around the same time every day, maybe drinking a full glass of water, stretching—like creating a routine for you, that makes you feel the best,” she said.
Avoid any plans that involve unrealistic expectations or that will undoubtedly add more stress to your life; instead of building a routine for the absolute best version of you—who always eats their vegetables, and absolutely never loses an evening to, say, getting stoned and watching TikToks—think about what small things that you, right now, in this particular moment, actually need to feel like yourself, and try to make that a regular part of your days.
Find ways to move your body regularly.
As you establish your routine, try to include some kind of physical activity—especially if you’ll still be working from home for the foreseeable future, a practice that, for all its benefits, can still leave you feeling cooped up, even in a post-vax world.
Moore said she’s been advising her clients to start thinking about exercise now, before the cold weather sets in and it’s harder to get motivated. “Do something that breaks up that energy,” she said. “I found that what's been so hard for people is they're stuck at home, in the same routine of ‘turn on your computer, work all day, and then go to bed.’”
“Sometimes I tell people just to move a bit—anything that feels good: Yoga, dancing, a ritual that helps you to shake up the energy,” she continued. “I’m a big fan of mindfulness, taking a breath, meditating—anything that supports shifting a bit. And recognizing that those rituals are important.”
If you’re once again worried about getting COVID, know that it’s OK to change your current approach to socializing.
Seeing the number of breakthrough cases tick upward and hearing about vaxxed friends’ testing positive can be really alarming... even if you know, objectively, that the vaccines are super effective at preventing hospitalization and death, and that breakthroughs make up a very small percentage of all COVID cases. And the reality is that getting COVID is scary, exhausting, and isolating, even if you’re vaccinated. So if you’re feeling particularly anxious about Delta and know you’d feel a little better if you returned to double-masking, or stopped going to house parties, or sold the tickets you bought for a concert in September, it’s really OK to just… do that!
“Some of my clients are on the go already—they have the vaccine, they feel good,” Paul said. “A lot of others are like, ‘Wait, I feel anxious being in crowds where I can't tell who's vaccinated,’ or ‘Is it OK to ask people if they're vaccinated?’ There's so many different factors that are playing into feeling OK again.”
Paul suggested trying to tune out the pressure to live your most fun and extroverted life right now. “Maybe my best life right now is a little bit more restricted,” she said.
Try not to rush into any big life decisions.
Boredom, anxiety, and pervasive reminders of the nearness of death can absolutely lead to impulsiveness—you might start to feel like something has to give, and it better be drastic. If you find yourself fantasizing about making a major life change—or even just booking a splurgey two-week vacation you can’t totally afford and aren’t sure is going to be safe—both Moore and Paul said you should pump the brakes and do a little self-reflection first.
Paul said to start by investigating why exactly you’re drawn to making this big change. “Being spontaneous is wonderful,” she said, “but there could be long-term impacts. So I always recommend that people take a breath and say, ‘Where is this decision coming from? Is it for myself now? Is it for my future self? What do I imagine is on the other side of this decision?’ And then that gets to what the hope is—‘What do I expect?’”
“Sometimes people are like, Well, if I just quit this job and run to a new one, everything will be different,” she continued. “But they find that they didn't really address what was going on. So the thing they [were dealing with], they’ve just kind of carried into their new job. I always try to encourage people to sit with those questions a little bit before making the decision.”
Paul said it’s normal to seek something new and different in moments of upheaval… but to remember that there can be unforeseen consequences of making big decisions when you’re upset. “Oftentimes, when we change in times of grief, it's actually worse for us because we're adding inconsistency in with already stressful factors,” she said. She mentioned a client who wanted to move to California to have access to better weather year-round. “Is it going to be more stressful to relocate, abandon all of your support systems, and start fresh on the other side of the country? Maybe in the long-term, that will be amazing, but the short-term is going to be really tough,” Paul said. “So let's talk about that.”
Reach out for help—and don’t wait until things feel “really bad.”
Both Moore and Paul emphasized how important it is to ask for support to the extent that you can. “I think in general, because these are such tough times, everybody would benefit from just talking to somebody—whether it be a therapist or friends,” Moore said. “It's helpful to get connected, or to hear other people's experiences and how they're coping. I would recommend that people [reach out] before they get to the point where it feels harder to pull yourself out of it.” If you can’t afford therapy, you might consider finding a support group. And, at minimum, know that it can be a huge relief to simply answer honestly the next time someone asks, “How are you?”
If you’re already in therapy, make sure you actually talk to your therapist about this. “Sometimes you get into a routine with your therapist, where they check in with you, you talk about your week, maybe whatever the biggest issue that you're dealing with is—and it might not be COVID,” Paul said. She said to let your therapist know if you think COVID anxieties and grief might be contributing to your overall stress levels so they can explore it with you. “Because if you don't bring it up in therapy, it's not going to come up,” she continued. “It's really important to recognize that this actually probably is a factor playing into increased depressive symptoms or increased social isolation. It can be really helpful for people to really ask for what they need, or say, ‘I don't know what I need, but this is what I'm feeling. Can you help me figure it out?’”
And remember that reaching out can include not just asking for help, but offering it as well. This can seem counterintuitive when you’re having a hard time, but even small amounts of volunteering and staying involved in mutual aid and local politics are tried and true ways to cope with despair and hopelessness. With the right boundaries in place, community care can be a form of self-care (and vice versa). Things won’t be like this forever, but the only way through it is together.
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.