The anniversary effect: my experience with COVID and mental health

Kavita O’Malley

On a lovely afternoon in spring of 2021, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of panic. As I walked the short distance to the pool, I felt a cool breeze on my skin and smelled the lovely air accompanied by the chorus of singing birds and buzzing bees. But instead of the usual joy that comes with longer days and better weather, my chest tightened, I felt anxious, and I struggled to breathe. Though it quickly passed, it was an experience that stuck with me.

When I spoke with friends about it later, I realized that I wasn’t alone—many others were having similar experiences. I came to the conclusion that it was a form of trauma response related to COVID-19. For many of us, the pandemic really started on Friday the 13th in March of 2020, meaning that the sense of dread I felt in connection with the changing seasons could have been related to the past trauma of quarantine and a year of seclusion.

Quarantine was hard for all of us in different ways. But no matter who you were, being forced into quarantine was a psychological jolt. Those first few days of going out and seeing no one, it was peculiar, and as time went on new changes just kept coming. As a teenager, everything I knew in terms of social routines suddenly shifted to spending all of my time cooped up with my family. As someone who thrives on positive and frequent social interaction, I can say that I had a lot of bad days. Lots of tears were shed and lots of hugs were received. I never want to have to go back to the place that I was in then, but the emotional flashbacks I experience now are detrimental in an eerily similar way.

Before going any further, it is important to note that I am in no way a medical professional and all conclusions I have made are merely theoretical. However, I have heard of many of our peers experiencing similar emotions so I feel it is important to draw attention to the issue.

Now, close to two years after the first lockdown, we are faced with another seasonal change. The days are shorter, the weather is colder, and for many people, it is bringing back memories of last winter. During quarantine, all get-togethers were to be held outside, which meant that when it was no longer feasible to meet outside, many were faced with a tough choice: sit alone in your room or spend a few freezing moments with your friends.

The short days of winter also made it hard. After sitting alone in a quiet room staring at a screen all day, finally being done with classes only to see that it was already dark was heartbreaking. These additional mental strains on top of typical seasonal depression led to emotional instability for many people.

Already, many people can sense these feelings resurfacing, as new thoughts and also flashbacks from the year before. As Christina Conolly, Director of Psychological Services for Montgomery County Public Schools, said in an interview with the Washington Post in an article released on October 26, 2021, “The toxic stress of everything going on during the pandemic, it’s building up with kids—and adults. Now that they’re around each other again, they need to relearn how to do school again.” 

We are in an unprecedented time for mental health and it can be easy to feel alone. Though this issue has been acknowledged to some extent in the media, it has not been recognized enough. As students, it is important that we recognize the effects the past year and a half have had on us so that we can support our peers, but also to remind each other that we are all going through this together. On these cold days, be sure to reach out if you are ever in a dark place or just in need of someone to talk to. •