Why 2021 felt worse than 2020, and how to feel better in 2022

Back in March — which seems like eons ago — a meme comparing our 2021 selves to our 2020 selves went around. Needless to say, the more current state was withered, having been through a year of the pandemic at that point:

While the joke is months old now, it encapsulates what many still believe: We feel worse now than last year. 

In addition to anecdotal tweets, the data tells a grim story. According to the Boston University School of Public Health, depression rates in the U.S. have tripled since the pandemic began, from 8.5 percent pre-pandemic to 27.8 percent in March through April 2020 to a staggering 32.8 percent a year later. 

Why did 2021 feel worse than 2020? We’ve experienced two years of disappointment, trauma, and a continued uncertainty that’ll bleed into next year — and perhaps beyond. While systematic reform is necessary for lasting change, there are tactics individuals can use to feel a bit better going into 2022. Part of that is understanding why the past two years have been so emotionally traumatic, as our brains and bodies have tried to cope with the pandemic and more.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know

We were more hopeful in 2020, said Silvia M. Dutchevici, psychotherapist and founder of the Critical Therapy Center, which provides therapy to individuals, couples, and groups. When the pandemic first began, we had no idea how long it’d drag out. We made now-quaint-seeming predictions: in two weeks, three months, six months, this would all be over. We also believed that vaccines would eradicate the virus. 

In 2021, we confronted the truth: COVID is still here with vaccines, and may never go away. The safety and security we thought jabs would bring never came — or if they did, the relief was painfully short-lived, as the emergence of variants sent us right back down the panic spiral again. 

This cycle has taken a toll on our mental health, explained Dutchevici. “When you look forward to something and then you’re disappointed over and over again,” she said, “it can lead to a lot of emotional trauma and depression.”

Brittany Becker, LMHC and director at The Dorm, a treatment community for young adults in New York City and Washington, D.C., has seen an uptick of frustration, confusion, and overwhelming anxiety from clients this year.

We also had to cope with the bleak reality that more people died of COVID in the U.S. in 2021 than 2020. The death rate is at around 410,000 this year as of mid-December, compared to 385,000 last year, according to the CDC. 

Not only is this a depressing statistic, but also, it has reverberations throughout the country. Almost 800,000 people have family members and friends who must now carry on without them, heartbroken by loss. Hundreds of thousands of those deaths could’ve been prevented with vaccines. And the death toll doesn’t factor in the millions of COVID survivors, over half of whom may have long-COVID symptoms, which can include brain fog, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and joint pain even months after recovery.

This devastation, combined with a lack of financial security for many people who lost jobs or their primary income earner, leads Dutchevici to believe we’re going through a mass depression event, similar to what happens when war rages a country.

Are we having fun yet?

In the midst of tragedy, some people are attempting to enjoy being able to go out and travel again (albeit with precautions, and for who knows how long) — but that may just put us in an emotional gutter. 

For one, we’re putting pressure on ourselves to have fun at a time like this. We’re “shoulding” ourselves, said Dutchevici: I should go out, I should be having a good time, I should want to see my friends.

Our “shoulds” may not be what we actually want. Dutchevici said some clients are exhausted after spending time with family for Thanksgiving this year, or that they’re so depleted they don’t even want to keep up their connections.

“One of the reasons people are feeling a lot more depressed is also because it takes a lot to be with others and to be present,” she said, “and they might feel emotionally drained more than ever.” 

Since we went so long without socializing, we have to recalibrate both how we go about it after a traumatizing time, and if we even want to. Plus, there’s the seemingly everpresent COVID anxiety that lurks with each gathering.

We pile on even more negative emotion by judging ourselves for feeling depressed, anxious, or tired. We wonder why we’re not happy — which doesn’t induce joy but instead brings on more mental pain.

“One of the reasons people are feeling a lot more depressed is also because it takes a lot to be with others and to be present.” – psychotherapist Silvia M. Dutchevici

Who’s feeling it the most

The pandemic has caused long-term stress for all of us, but some feel the strain more. Low-income people were seven times more likely to experience depression symptoms this spring than other adults, Boston University found. 

While Americans received stimulus checks and a rent moratorium in 2020 and the start of this year, they haven’t received a stimulus for months, and evictions are on the rise throughout the country after being lifted in various places where they were temporarily made illegal, such as Texas. With student loan payments restarting in February, poor Americans and millions of others will soon feel a tighter squeeze.

Parents — particularly mothers — are another group having a difficult time, said Dutchevici. COVID exacerbated long-term problems like balancing work and child care, forcing the two to coexist together in one place, and mothers took on the brunt of the responsibility. Moms are more than three times more likely than dads to take on most of the domestic work and childcare, according to a May 2021 report from McKinsey.

What’s more is that the “great resignation” nomer makes it seem like workers are achieving more power in the country, but many of the employees leaving their jobs are mothers, and not by choice. Besides a child tax credit, these parents haven’t received much governmental help. 

What we can do to feel better

Many of these issues — the need for financial assistance, familial aid, and mental healthcare — are systemic, and need widespread change in order to properly address them. “COVID…if we’re paying attention, showed us how [mental health is] not an individual problem,” said Dutchevici. 

Barring voting for and supporting candidates who support these initiatives, and doing what we can to speak out or give what we can to promote necessary services, we can’t control whether they happen. So is there anything we as individuals can do to feel better? Thankfully, yes.

One, according to Dutchevici, is to manage expectations. There is no “going back” to how life was pre-pandemic. If you attempt to recreate something you lost, you’re probably going to be disappointed. If you look ahead, however, there’s an opportunity for growth, different connections, and new ways of interacting that may even be better, sometimes, than what came before. 

Another tactic is to learn to take it day-by-day. We’re living in a time of uncertainty. Humans don’t like uncertainty; it’s inherently anxiety-inducing. But making plans for six months or a year from now may lead to disappointment later, because we still don’t know how things are going to shake out. 

Instead, try to stay present — and contend with the unpredictability. “Learning how to navigate and cope with this uncertainty will be key in helping us effectively cope in 2022,” said Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, therapist and family psychiatrist at LifeStance Health, a virtual and in-person provider for mental healthcare.

Identify and create areas of your life that can provide enjoyment, purpose, and routine, said Becker, to help relieve stress and gain a sense of what you can control. Examples she gave are incorporating mindfulness activities into your daily routine, starting a new hobby, or scheduling a weekly call with a friend or family member. 

In the case of the latter, having a strong support system can be extremely helpful, said Patel-Dunn. This will look different for everyone — maybe it’s turning to a loved one; maybe it’s meeting with a therapist — but it’s important to have at least one person you can open up to during these times. Talking through one’s fears may help alleviate some anxiety over them.

A question to ask yourself: What has come up for you during this time? When we’re stressed and going through something traumatic, it can bring up unresolved trauma. If you’re struggling and unsure why, it could be tied to past triggers. Discuss this with a mental health professional if possible, or lean on your support system.

Ultimately, feel the sadness and anxiety of the moment. Don’t pathologize and ask what’s wrong with you, or why you aren’t happy; we are still in a pandemic, and people are dying every day. It makes sense to feel awful, and pushing it away will only make it worse. 

Be kind to yourself. Skip the holiday parties you don’t have energy for, and make time for activities you do enjoy, even if they’re different from years past. 

The pandemic won’t cease to exist once 2022 begins, but hopefully, with these tips, we can go into the year feeling marginally better. 

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