The Pandemic Is Still Making Us Feel Terrible

Turns out, it’s hard to adjust to a new normal when that new normal keeps changing.

Art of a woman holding her head in her hands, inside a virus-shaped frame
Mondadori Portfolio / Getty; The Atlantic

“How we feelin’ out there tonight?” Bo Burnham asks an imaginary audience during his comedy special Inside, which he self-filmed from a single room over the course of a year. “Heh, haha, yeahhhhh,” he says to himself. “I am not feeling good.”

Following the special’s release this past May, TikTok users pounced on the clip. The sound has been used in more than 71,000 videos, amassing millions and millions of plays. Everyday users and creators alike can be found lip-synching along—sometimes gesturing to a specific stressor in their life, other times just conveying a general sense of malaise. It’s a pretty fitting time capsule of this moment in American life.

Just like Bo said: We are not feeling so good. And even after all this time—you can still blame the coronavirus.

You can tell from the numbers. In a recent national poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, half of U.S. households polled said someone within the home was experiencing serious problems with depression, anxiety, or stress—or sleep issues. You can tell from the recent streak of bad behavior in airports and other public spaces. And you can tell from the surge of interest in self-help books on trauma and anxiety.

The latest wave of coronavirus cases is receding at last, and we may feel a bit of relief. But this past summer’s false start of hope has given way to a nasty sense of whiplash and unease, particularly as winter approaches. Humans generally do not like ambiguity, experts warned me, and we’re deep in it right now.

“That jerking around is very, very stressful,” Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, told me, “because it’s full of uncertainty.” Some individuals tolerate ambiguity better than others, but Americans in particular don’t tolerate it well, Boss explained. “We are a mastery-oriented society. We like to put a helicopter on Mars,” she said. “And suddenly we get this virus that can’t be controlled and hasn’t been now for such a long period of time.”

On the off chance you didn’t notice, 2020 was a banner year for uncertainty. We lived through ever-extending shutdowns, fluctuating day-to-day guidance, and unpredictable surges. But by the spring of 2021, we’d won back a bit of control: Vaccines offered answers and an exit ramp. Then Delta swooped in  with more uncertainty—you know, for good measure. The variant not only disrupted summer plans, but scuttled a lot of our hard-earned knowledge about the coronavirus and made us rethink our personal risk calculus. Any bits of certainty we’d managed to reclaim over the course of a year living with this virus evaporated.

All of this can have real consequences for a person’s psyche. “It’s called the burden of accumulated adversity,” Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, who wrote a 2019 book on the psychology of pandemics, told me. Though outbreaks affect different people in different ways, “the more stresses you pile upon people, the greater their risk of developing psychological problems.” (And the stresses are piling on: The NPR poll also documented financial distress, fears of children falling behind in school, and worries about being attacked or threatened because of race and ethnicity.) Taylor expects that, as this pandemic stretches on, people’s moods will continue to worsen, particularly if we experience more setbacks. These moods could manifest as irritability, or as more serious mental-health problems.

Since April 2020, the Census Bureau has been keeping track of the estimated number of Americans reporting signs of anxiety or depression using its biweekly Household Pulse Survey. In the first half of 2021, the survey reflected a general sense of optimism: The number of people reporting such symptoms was generally on the decline. It fell from its 2021 peak of 41 percent, around the end of January, to 29 percent by the Fourth of July. But since then, the number has begun to creep back up, hovering around 32 percent in the most recent reporting periods.

Think of it this way: About one in every three people in the country is feeling fragile, in some way, right now. Two of the experts I spoke with worried that compounding stress is responsible for the angry outbursts we’re seeing in public places. Kenneth Carter, who teaches psychology at Oxford College at Emory University, describes himself as an optimist. But even he worries that, after so much loss and suffering, some of us “may be near the bottom of our well of compassion.” That could translate into feeling numb or being unable to show up for those in pain—even if we feel guilty about it, he says. This “compassion fatigue”—combined with the kind of people who are creating messy, angry scenes in public—“doesn’t make the world feel like the warm hug that we want it to be.”

The good news is that people are resilient. Boss believes some of us have “increased our tolerance” for ambiguity over the past year and a half. And ultimately, this period will pass. Some people will continue to struggle, but most will bounce back. “It’s a no-brainer,” Taylor said, pointing out that humanity has survived two dozen pandemics over the past two centuries. “That’s what humans do.”

Until then, either get comfortable with uncertainty—or outsource the job to TikTok. Recently, users have become enamored of a 13-year-old pug named Noodle with a penchant for prediction. Each morning, the dog’s owner delicately lifts the drowsy pup into a sitting position, then tests if he stays upright or slumps back into canine slumber. It’s Groundhog Day meets horoscopes meets pandemic blues: If the pug finds his bones, it’s a good day; if he doesn’t, you’re encouraged to call in sick and wear soft pants. The dog’s daily forecasts might not be all that scientifically accurate, but if you’re having a bad day, you can always blame Noodle. Or, you know, the compounding uncertainty of the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic you’re, yes, somehow still living through.