The ‘Great Snapback’: A psychology professor on life and anxiety after COVID-19

TVO.org speaks with U of T’s Steve Joordens about what it will be like returning to normal life post-pandemic — and the struggles we’ll face
By Matt Gurney - Published on Mar 18, 2021
Steve Joordens is professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough. (Facebook)

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On the weekend, I wanted to blow off a little steam. Just relax, you know? Shake off the stress of our current moment. So I grabbed a cold beer, kicked my feet up, and popped on … The Day After, the 1983 made-for-TV film that depicts a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. And I just let all the tension and sadness of life in a pandemic … wash away.

I kid, of course. It’s a gut punch of a film, even now, and I’ve seen it many times before. But there’s a scene in it that caught my eye in a new way. A few weeks after the bombs fall, our point-of-view characters emerge from their shelters in Kansas and behold what’s left of the world. They blink against the harsh light of a sun they haven’t seen in weeks. It’s alien to their eyes. But it’s the same old sun.

And that’s going to be all of us, right? We are all going to begin returning to normal soon — or soonish — and some of us are going to have a hard time adjusting. We will blink hard at the old normal.

This week I spoke to Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, and asked him about this. When vaccinations have allowed us to finally turn the corner on COVID-19, what will our first steps back into the daylight feel like?

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Matt Gurney: Not to jinx us, because this ain’t over yet, but sometime relatively soon, parts of the population are going to be vaccinated and able to return to normal life. I bet many won’t miss a step. For others, though, I think that’s going to be a challenge.

Steve Joordens: I’m on record as arguing that, by and large, for many of us, we’re going to see what I’ve called the “Great Snapback.” Many of us have wondered: Will we ever be comfortable being shoulder to shoulder at a Raptors game again? That kind of thing. Our basic core, though, is that we are highly social beings. We’re the most social animals on the planet by far. And we get so much of our comfort from being around other people, being connected to other people. And, in addition to that, we’ve had decades of habits of behaving certain ways around other people. I think, for most of us, when we feel safe, we will go back to that — like a warm blanket. Literally, once we find ourselves in that pub, and you know, being sort of surrounded by noise and people watching sports, that won’t be anxiety; it will be more of a homecoming. We will be like, yes, this is what I needed. This is what I wanted.

That’s for most people. Some of us have had a lot more fear. And a critical factor will be how really fearful you were during this whole pandemic. We had people on the front lines of this. And there are some older people and people with health issues that literally have been thinking, you know, if I catch this virus, it will kill me. That sort of fear is the kind that can connect to things like post-traumatic stress disorder. That varies a lot. Some of us don’t have an existential threat. The pandemic has been mostly annoying. Those people will snap back. But others will have trouble. They may carry some anxiety with them — anxiety that they’re currently feeling and associate with other human beings as sources of risk and danger. So they’re forming those associations in sort of a Pavlovian sense. Being around other people may make them feel anxious and could ultimately become a major problem that they need to find a way of dealing with.

There’s another category of people that won’t snap back. It doesn’t fit under the same category of this, but there are people, while they don’t like the virus or the pandemic or the anxiety, they do like some of the life routines. You know, not having to commute all the time, being able to live wherever you really want to because your business can be done from anywhere. And just the general lack of oversight, I guess you might say. There are aspects that people will have liked, and they will find it hard to have to get back in that car, go back through the traffic jam, and deal with maybe the workplace situation as it was. That’s not an anxiety kind of thing. That’s some people feeling more productive now than they have felt in their whole life. And the idea of sitting in an office where people are going to stop in and chat with us might be something we just don’t want to deal with again. We like being productive.

Gurney: I’m glad you said that, because I have had occasional moments of guilt throughout this whole thing. I am a homebody introvert. And that has been a survival advantage this past year. It’s not that I haven’t been freaked out at times. Of course I have. But I don’t have to fight to work from home anymore, because everybody works from home now. And it’s this strange feeling: 22,000 Canadians have died, but my commute has never been better. I know that sounds mocking, but I’m being sincere — this has been a tragedy that has produced some good outcomes, and it’s hard to know how to have both those thoughts in your mind at the same time. And there will be other people who feel that way. But what about people who had pre-existing anxieties? COVID-19 was probably an incubator or an accelerator for that.

Joordens: That’s been an interesting question. People right at the beginning of COVID said, you know, is this going to be especially hard on people who have pre-existing anxiety issues. That wasn’t clear to me. Quite often, these anxiety issues are connected to certain things. One person I know well, and work with, she had a lot of anxiety issues. For example, we would be in a meeting, and for reasons that I didn’t understand, at some point, she would just leave and come to me afterwards and say, “Really, I’m sorry. That was an anxiety attack, and I had to get out.” When this began, I reached out to her, and she said, “Everybody now knows how I feel. I have learned coping strategies. And so this is really just all of you guys coming to where I am. And, if anything, that makes me feel more understood.”

So there’s that. But let’s talk about what anxiety actually is. The basic process of anxiety is you sense a threat, you sense danger, and your body kicks in this sympathetic nervous system that gets you ready to fight or flee. That’s a normal thing to do; in light of a real threat, it’s there to help us escape the bears and do that kind of thing. COVID, of course, screws that up because the threat is chronic. And we’re not supposed to stay in that fight-or-flee mode for a long time. But that’s where most of us are. And that’s a rational biological response to the presence of threat.

A lot of people with anxiety disorders, what they have is a process that gets triggered irrationally. The little part of our brain that kicks this off is called the amygdala. And you’re doing a normal thing — you’re on the subway; you’re going to work. And suddenly you have this irrational feeling: your amygdala gets triggered, and you feel like you are in danger. And you look around, and you can’t find any source of the threat. And that makes it worse, because it feels like it’s there, and you can’t see it. It’s not at all clear to me that having the pandemic is going to make life any harder on people that have had that triggering reaction. In some cases, it may have helped these people. If they’re not comfortable around people at any time, they can stay home.

Gurney: Steve, you have just directly addressed something I’ve only ever sort of carefully talked about with close friends but will now just disclose to the entire world. I want to be sensitive to this. I don’t want people who have anxiety issues to feel that I’m being judgmental. But I don’t have anxiety issues. I know people who do. People in my family do. But I don’t. So even as a layperson, I’ve been able to consider this at a lucky remove.

And I’ve wondered if a problem is that we are wired to be anxious. Anxiety is a survival mechanism. The caveman who didn’t get worried about the bump he heard at night got eaten by the lion. The caveman who heard the bump and woke up to check it out lived long enough to have kids. We are all the product of the anxious caveman’s genome. But we also live in what is objectively the safest era in history, at least in the Western world. Yet we are still programmed to be on alert. And I’ve often wondered whether people with terrible anxiety disorders, which I know can be terrible to live with, are people whose DNA is commanding them to be more alert than the facts of their life would justify.

Joordens: You’re 100 per cent right — the anxiety reaction is a survival mechanism. We have sympathetic peripheral nerves. That’s the part that connects your brain to your internal organs and your muscles. It has two modes. The first is called “rest and digest.” That’s the mode you’re in most of the time. So when you’re relaxing, you’re separating waste from nutrients, delivering nutrients to the body, eliminating waste. That’s the major process that goes on. But the moment we feel — like, if you’re sitting on the couch and chilling out, and you hear a window smash upstairs — when you feel that could be danger, that immediately triggers this opposite mode. All your digestion shuts down, your heart rate speeds up, your breathing speeds up and puts all this oxygen-rich blood into all of your muscles. It basically prepares you to either go fight that thing or flee that thing.

Gurney: Your body goes to battle stations.

Joordens: Right. Exactly. So we don’t fight or flee, usually. Most of the time, there is no real danger. In normal life, this reaction gets triggered regularly enough, but not as much as it was in the past. In the past, it tended to be triggered by what we call acute threats, acute stressors. Like you said, something is sneaking into your cave — fight it or flee it. That’s the way that system is meant to work. It’s a short-term sort of supercharged power; you have superhero strength, superhero speed to deal with a situation, and then it goes away.

For most of us in our world, our stresses are different. They aren’t acute; they’re chronic. We have social stress. We stress about money and our job. Our biological systems did not evolve for those kinds of stresses, but they kick in the same way. And that leads to a lot of people feeling stressed all the time. And you’re exactly right. It’s especially bad when you can’t put a finger on what’s causing you to feel stressed. So you may indeed be right. But you know, now that we have a nice, clear villain, a shared threat, the stress is rational again.

Gurney: Most of human history has been terrible. People don’t know how bad it has been for almost all our history. We had routine wars, constant violence, fear of famine, and starvation from poverty. Diseases ravaged us. Life was constant physical toil just to grow food. Most of us don’t face that reality now, but we’re still the animals we were, and we respond in ways that actually probably make it harder to deal with the problems of today. A bunch of chemicals flooding into my bloodstream to give me strength doesn’t help me deal with a bad boss or a systemic societal issue.

Joordens: One hundred per cent. This is something we look at in the biology. This is the root of a lot of post-traumatic stress. We evolved to live in a very different world. One of the things that the brain does, when the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, is that it says, well, there’s probably stimuli around me right now that could have warned me that this danger was about to happen. And I’m going to store that stimuli and kick in the sympathetic response when I detect it again. That smell? That’s the bear sneaking into your cave, and your brain says, the next time you smell that, I’m bringing you right back to this fight-or-flee response. And that’s going to give you maybe four or five seconds you didn’t have this time.

But now think of something like the Danforth attack. People were eating dinner, and someone tried to shoot them. If there’s a coffee machine grinding away in the background, their brain can grab that sound and file that as a warning of immediate danger. So that person, every time they hear coffee beans being ground, their brain is going right to fight-or-flee. The connections between stimuli and danger are not what they were when we had a simpler existence … when our biological responses evolved.

Gurney: I know someone who is a combat veteran. His unit was mortared. And he’s a big sports fan. And the sound of a ref’s whistle reminded him, for a long, long time, of rounds coming in on his position. And he knew it wasn’t. But he still wanted to throw himself to the ground and take cover every time a play got called.

Joordens: That’s it. Right. It’s permanent. It’s a primal, basic biological reaction. And, right now, because of the pandemic and its danger, all of us are a more primitive, more basic version of ourselves. But I still think that those of us who haven’t been forced into actual fear will snap back. Those who were may struggle.

Gurney: My daughter is eight. She had spent years in school before the pandemic. My son is six. He was just getting started in school when this began. She has memories to “snap back” to, as you said. He doesn’t — not really. And there are kids even younger than he is who remember only life during the pandemic. How are they going to cope?

Joordens: We always say that this is “unprecedented.” It’s not. My parents grew up as children in Nazi-occupied Holland. And through my Dutch background, I’ve met lots of people that were kids under Nazi occupation. And you want to know something that gives me hope? Most of them don’t carry a dark scar. They were changed by their experience. My parents love canned food. I asked my mom, like, you know you can get fresh food, right? [Laughs] But they like having canned food because of those associations with war-time privation. They’re always happy to get canned fruit.

But kids are resilient. If they are really experiencing fear, if their sympathetic nervous systems are kicking in, yeah, that can give them PTSD. But, by and large, except a bit at the beginning, during the toilet-paper scare, we’ve managed our fear. And if parents manage fear in the home — if they project calm to their kids — that will resonate with the kids. Avoid panic. Show your kids, yeah, this is serious. This is dangerous. But we have our stuff together. We’re managing the risk. We’re doing the right things. Tell them, it’s not dangerous for you, but it’s dangerous for grandma, and we’re doing these things to keep her safe. If parents and teachers give the right vibe off, the kids will be okay … and they might even come out of this with some appreciation for normal life.

I have a granddaughter around your daughter’s age, and she’s famous for saying things like, “COVID is ruining my life.” But when she got to go back to school, she was thrilled. This is a shared experience for us, and we’re going to be stronger for it and maybe more appreciative, too.

Gurney: We’ve mostly talked about a return to normal from the mental-health perspective. But what about social norms? A few weeks ago, I saw an old associate in the park. I was walking my dog and ran into a guy I knew well enough to talk to but hadn’t seen in a few years. So we had a little chit-chat. How’s the wife, how’s the kids — stuff like that. And after maybe five minutes, at the end of our chat, reflexively, we shook hands. And we both just instantly recoiled. WHOA! WE CAN’T DO THAT! But for all my life, at the end of a pleasant chat, you shook hands. And it was funny, because a woman saw the whole thing and came running up to us with a bottle of sanitizer. So we sanitized and laughed. But I wonder: Will the snapback you talked about be 100 per cent? Or will we go back 90 per cent but be changed in some ways?

Joordens: I think it’s going to be basically 100 per cent. And I think we’re going to enjoy shaking hands. Touching people is core to our emotional well-being. When I was learning to scuba dive, they taught me, if you feel panic, hug yourself. It works! What we’ve been doing for so long now is asking our frontal lobe to be a person babysitting a five-year-old that always gets into trouble: no, you can’t do that, stop. No, you can’t do that, stop. We’re stopping ourselves from engaging in normal learned behaviours. It’s exhausting. We are all tired of being the nanny for our normal lives and comfortable ways. Our learned behaviour and our biological core are going to want to snap back to that old warm blanket of life as it was.

And you know what? This isn’t necessarily a good thing. We should change. We should learn. We should change things after this pandemic and avoid some of the old mistakes. There is a danger that we’ll snap back to normal so hard we’ll ignore or forget all the things we learned through the danger and pain of the experience. If we don’t consciously learn some lessons and consciously make those changes, we’ll just snap all the way back.

Gurney: This is like every column I’ve ever written. We don’t learn, not in Canada. We’ll forget the lessons of history and then get our asses kicked by COVID-25 and wonder how it could have happened. And I’ll probably be the same way. Four weeks after my vaccination, I’ll be elbows deep in beer and wings at the pub and have only a vague recollection of this weird thing that happened over the past year.

Joordens: Yep. Those who were truly afraid will carry that. The rest of us? We’ll forget and snap back.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

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