You’ve been here before. The flurry of headlines declare a “variant of concern.” The talking heads urge you not to panic as chyrons below them repeat the words mutation and breakthrough. And, no, you shouldn’t emotionally unravel because this isn’t a repeat of March 2020 when there were no effective vaccines and little understanding of how COVID-19 spread. The fear of the unknown, however, still has the power to knock you down.
You thought you were done with this uncertainty, even if secretly you knew that was unlikely. You hoped the Delta variant of COVID-19 would be the prelude to the end of our pandemic nightmare. But now you’re faced with Omicron, a variant that South African scientists brought to the world’s attention around Thanksgiving, right as you were settling into being with family safely for the first time since COVID-19 began infecting and killing millions of people. The first confirmed case in the U.S. surfaced in San Francisco on Wednesday. Another case discovered in Minnesota, in a patient who hadn’t traveled internationally, suggests domestic transmission of Omicron is already underway.
It’s reasonable to feel unnerved by this unexpected turn. There’s lingering doubt about what Omicron means for your well-laid plans: the long-delayed wedding, getting back on a dating app, returning to an office workplace. Just as you’d gotten familiar, maybe even comfortable, with the stakes of Delta, there are new questions. How well do the vaccines stand up to Omicron? Does Omicron, on average, infect more people than Delta, which is already quite contagious? Do Omicron infections really lead to only mild symptoms?
You’d like to make decisions based on this information, but you can’t — not yet. The experts say they’ll know more about Omicron in the coming weeks. They say to keep calm, get vaccinated or boosted, and continue practicing prevention measures, like masking indoors and testing before gathering. They’re not wrong. The rational response is not to spiral. After all, you’ve been here before: The downward slide into breathless anxiety doesn’t serve you, or anyone else you love, well. But the truth is that humans are terrible at managing uncertainty. They love knowing what will, or is likely to, happen next. You’re no exception.
So you look for ways to manage. You could play pretend, ignoring the threat of the virus because you’re exhausted from worry, like so many others. You could let the anxiety of the unknown spin you into either hyperproductivity or deep depression. The first is a type of distraction. The second is often what happens when we feel relentlessly out of control.
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But between the extremes there’s a calmer path. Look around and take note of what you observe. News coverage and social media content about Omicron can be alarmist. If consuming that heightens your emotions — grief, anxiety, anger — take in accurate, measured stories and commentary instead. Turn off notifications. Mute accounts that hype instead of explain. The point isn’t to feel nothing about the uncertainty, but to limit how much outside influences push your emotions to the breaking point.
Now consider what you’ve already learned from past tumultuous periods following a new variant of concern. Did you fret over Alpha last winter and then forget it existed once Delta comprised most infections? Perhaps the choices you made following Delta are ones you can make again now, like avoiding indoor dining, masking at the gym even when it’s not required, and being particularly cautious around unvaccinated children and immunocompromised but vaccinated people. If these actions made you feel more in control of your fate and more like a good citizen, try them again.
Make a list of things that boost your mood and do those, too. Safely socialize with people who make you laugh. Move your body with the goal of releasing the stress that’s stiffened your joints and limbs. Sleep and eat well, if you can. Be fully present when possible, and breathe. Try a meditation app, or a new meditation course, if that’s your thing. Practice the techniques experts say you should: radical acceptance, self-compassion, mindfulness. They’ll keep you grounded in the present reality rather than stuck in a circular hell of your own nervous thinking.
Be kind to yourself when you end up there anyway, despite your best efforts. Be especially gentle if you’re a health care worker or on the front lines in another capacity, like as a cashier, flight attendant, or DMV employee. You’ve been worn down by constant exposure to risk. Some strangers you encounter only make this worse with their carelessness or callousness. You, of all people, deserve more certainty in this pandemic, not less. If that’s how you feel, simply acknowledge it. Say you wish this was finally over, because you’re not alone.
Above all, remember that we’re not starting over again. Variants of COVID-19, including Omicron, are unlikely to fully evade the immune system, according to the experts. We know that masking can prevent infection. Rapid tests, though obscenely expensive and sometimes hard to find in the U.S., are available, as is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. We’re not going back to March 2020, at least not with this virus. As for Omicron, trust that you’ll know the answers to your questions soon, because you will. It’s just a matter of time.