Having said good riddance to 2020, we would love the new year to bring with it immediate relief from the pandemic and its fallout. Although it’s true we will see a return to a form of normality at some point in 2021, realistically, as the winter months turn to spring and increasing numbers of citizens receive vaccines, we will notice that the situation has improved gradually.
As we navigate what remains of the cold weather and accompanying spikes in cases from holiday travel, Fauci has warned us not to let our guard down. As we fight the burnout from what feels like an endless pandemic plus additional seasonal effects on our mental health, there are still a few things we can keep in mind to carry us through until the end. One difference today versus the mid- to late-2020 months is that we now have hope.
We Can Replace Negative Thoughts With Hopeful Ones
Perhaps one of my biggest problems is catastrophizing—saying, “What if X, Y, or Z (bad thing) happens?” When my cousin got COVID-19, I was terrified for my uncle, who has many preexisting conditions. My therapist said, “It sounds like you’re already giving him the virus in your head. What if he doesn’t get it?”
I was already assuming it would be a catastrophe. For as many times as we say, “What if there’s a negative outcome?” we can also say, “What if there’s a positive outcome?” Then we can replace imagining how terrified, grief-stricken, or unsafe we would feel in the worst-case scenario with how relieved, grateful, or fulfilled we would feel with the best possible result.
When we worry about things before they’re a real problem—just like my therapist said I was doing—we’re making them real in our minds. Then our bodies physically react with all the stress hormones and neurotransmitters they would produce if the catastrophe really were happening. We have to try to activate the good, hopeful thoughts instead. When we’re constantly living in a state of survival mode—with unyielding fight or flight responses—our bodies cannot cope. We’re not meant to live that way.
Moreover, that’s not a state of mind conducive to creativity and critical thinking. Instead, I try to tell myself to worry about something only when it becomes a problem, practice mindfulness, and live in the present. Living in a past experience or predicted future full of worry or pain, then perseverating on it, is not productive. It’s hard to manage, but every night before bed, I tell myself, “Right here, right now, you are safe.”
Everyone has been hurt by this pandemic. In the future, when our CVs or transcripts are being looked over and people see the year of COVID-19, they will understand there were unavoidable missed opportunities and cancellations. Having to explain an extenuating personal life circumstance is one thing on an application, but nothing is more understandable than when life simultaneously comes to a halt for everybody on the planet.
The Pandemic Is Almost Over
The same reasons why winter has been dubbed “cold and flu season” are the reasons why winter has been spreading COVID-19. Dr. Fauci warned us about this early on in the pandemic, and we’ve seen the effects from winter and the holidays play out in the statistics. Outside gatherings are still not quite an option yet for much of the country, and the cold air preserves viruses longer and impacts our first line of defense by slowing mucus clearance.
Although the change of season made the virus a bigger issue, seasonal depression and the mental health challenges from social isolation have become looming concerns. Social isolation during the pandemic has already taken a mental health toll, and although we’ve combatted it with strolls in the park and outdoor dining, those options that felt like saving graces haven’t been available to us during cold weather.
I spent Christmas Day in the lab instead of with family. What has been getting me through this double whammy has been the light at the end of the tunnel—the vaccines are here. The day the first U.S. citizen received a vaccine, I was overwhelmed with joy. Finally, we’re on the offensive. Not only that, but the vaccine efficacy holds overwhelming promise, even proving useful against emerging variants.
No one in the Moderna vaccine trial developed severe COVID-19, and Moderna and Pfizer’s vaccines have 94.5% and 95% efficacy against symptomatic infection, respectively. As time goes on, more companies, such as AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, are also likely to start to add to our vaccine pool and deal with any potential mutations.
The hardest part of the pandemic for me has always been having no end in sight, but now there is one. For us as graduate students, that means a return to normality or—for those who started their journey during the pandemic—finally having the full grad school experience.
We have had to accept that most of our graduations and thesis committee meetings are being pushed back because of COVID-19. Even though we’re all in the same boat, the academic pressure that already often caused us to overwork ourselves is now exacerbated by feeling like we’re behind.
Most days, I have limited time in lab; I find myself on my feet almost the entire time. As grad students, it’s hard to remember to remind ourselves to take a moment to reflect on our science, the questions we’re asking, the direction we’re going in, and what the big picture is. I have felt like I was running on autopilot for most of my lab days—just trying to get as much work done as possible during my shift.
When I had finally taken a moment to breathe and take a step back to look at all my data collectively, it was refreshing. It reminded me why I’m doing what I’m doing, at a point when grad students commonly feel a loss of direction deep into their Ph.D.s. It’s important now, more than ever, to remind ourselves of the passion we have, the curiosities that drive us, and what our work will mean for science.
We will have to get farther into 2021 before the pandemic improves enough for things to start to feel normal again. One thing to remember with the renewal of the New Year is that even if the freedom to go out and be social is delayed a bit longer, 2021 does bring with it the promise of an end to the ways COVID-19 has paralyzed the world. This year, we will go to weddings again, see movies again, go to conferences again, go to happy hour again, and make the most of it after the many long months of waiting. We have something to look forward to.