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Why Seeing a 'Light at the End of the Tunnel' Raises Anxiety

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistFebruary 09, 2021

There’s a nerve-racking plot device I’ve seen many times in war movies. A soldier is counting down the days till the end of his tour, looking forward to going home and marrying his sweetheart, or meeting his baby for the first time. As the action moves toward his flight home -- 3 days, 2 days, 1 day -- the tension mounts. Will he make it out alive, or will tragedy strike on his final patrol?  

Our reaction to these movies is a common human experience -- the closer we are to escaping from danger, the higher the stakes seem to be. Maybe it’s finally seeing a gas station in the distance and fearing the remaining fumes in our tank won’t get us there. Or we’ve been driving in the car, desperate to empty our bladder, and when at last we reach the front door of our home, we worry we won’t make the final few yards to the bathroom. And perhaps like me, you’ve driven on icy interstate roads for hours, and you’re extra cautious not to crash as you negotiate the final mile or two. 

Many of us are experiencing a version of this anxiety about COVID right now, with the vaccine available and seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Why might our anxiety rise the closer we get to escaping a threat?

So Close

It’s never a good thing to have COVID, but it seems especially unfortunate to contract it when relief is so close at hand. It’s like being stranded on a desert island for months and then dying with a boat on the horizon. “Hang on!” we tell ourselves. “You’re almost there!”

Sunk Cost

Most of us have given up a lot in the past year to avoid catching the virus. We’ve worked from home, or had to give up work altogether. We’ve missed out on birthdays and family get-togethers. We’ve taken all our classes online. Those “sunk costs” loom large when we’re worrying about catching the virus now. What were all those efforts for if we were just going to get it at the eleventh hour? 


We might also want to avoid potential embarrassment about getting sick at this point. There’s been a lot of COVID-shaming throughout the pandemic, as some assume that contracting the virus must be due to a failure to follow appropriate guidelines. Now that the vaccine is being distributed, we may worry that the judgment will be even more intense.  

So how can we deal with this version of COVID anxiety? First, keep in mind that it’s no more likely that we’ll get the virus now that a vaccine is available than it was before (putting aside the new variants of the virus). We’re not living in a scripted tragedy where of course the hero dies right when everything is about to be OK. The risk is the same as before, and we can continue with the same precautions we’ve been taking.

That said, having the vaccine available might reasonably tip our behavior toward greater precautions. When there was no end in sight, we may have been more willing to relax some of the precautions as we did our best to balance COVID prevention and looking after our mental health. But now that we know these restrictions won’t last forever, it might feel more acceptable to avoid things we expect to have back in a few months, like in-person holiday gatherings or working out at our gym.

If we do contract coronavirus before we get vaccinated, we can go easy on ourselves. There’s a reason millions of people have been infected -- the virus is highly contagious, and it isn’t personal. We can balance taking precautions with continuing to live our life as best we can, and accept that the risk is almost never zero (unless we’re in the unenviable position of having zero human contact for nearly a year).

Along the same lines, we can take care not to assume that everyone who gets the virus must have been careless. The compassion we extend to others might end up coming back to us if, God forbid, we get COVID ourselves. We’ve come this far together -- with relief in sight, let’s make these last few miles as painless as possible. 



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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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