Many of our patients are asking for advice on how to handle the anxiety and uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The answer we’re all hearing in the news, “It’s too early to know for sure,” while true, isn’t very helpful.
Is Omicron more or less dangerous than the variants currently in circulation? Can it evade vaccination or previous infection? How transmissible is it? Where did it come from? Will we need extra shots to combat Omicron?
While the early data is certainly heartening, it will be weeks before we have definite answers to these questions and this leaves us feeling very anxious. If we let them, thoughts like this will lead us down the rabbit hole of catastrophic thinking.
Unfortunately, we’re likely to be in this situation over and over again before the pandemic is really over so it’s time to flex our “dealing with uncertainty” muscles. Here’s what we’re advising our patients:
1) Take a deep breath
“As with every other area of uncertainty in our lives,” says WCWCW Director, Dr. Wendy Hookman, “we can’t panic every time we perceive a potential threat. Once we’re in the panic state, we can’t think clearly, process new information or act appropriately to defend ourselves so the first step, always, is to breathe.” Having a “go-to” breathing or meditation practice is the first step in calming yourself and feeling more grounded.
2) Remember that you already know how to protect yourself
“As opposed to early 2020 when we first learned of the novel coronavirus,” says Dr. Hookman, “we’re in a much better position. We already know what to do to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Get vaccinated, if you aren’t. Get kids vaccinated if they aren’t. Wear a mask in indoor public places, especially if they’re crowded. Avoid really crowded indoor events. Use tools like rapid tests to reduce your risk of carrying something into a family gathering or party. Those are the basics. If you’re already doing them, great. You don’t need to go on full lockdown just because scientists are investigating a new variant of concern. If you aren’t already doing those things, now is a good time to consider employing more of those precautions in your life.”
3) Train your brain to stop focusing on things you can’t control
“When you spend too much time worrying about what could happen in the future then it’s easy to get swept away by disastrous scenarios;” says WCWCW psychotherapist, Amy Pelletier, LCSW-C, “The wisest thing you can do is just focus your time and attention in the present where you have the power to decide what works for you and carry out what you want to do.”
One way to accomplish this is to slow down. Do whatever you are doing right now but do it slower. Move, write, eat or fold the laundry more slowly. By doing so you’ll become more aware of what is happening all around you right now.
You can also disrupt and reconnect. If you feel you are starting to worry then disrupt that thought by shouting this to yourself in your mind: STOP! Then reconnect with the present moment by taking just one or two minutes to focus to 100% on what is going on around you. Take it all in with all your senses. Feel it, see it, smell it, hear it and sense it on your skin.
4) Step away from the news
“These days, when we learn about something scary in the news, our instinct is to attempt to control our anxiety by researching it on the internet to gather more and more information,” says Amy Pelletier, “but this approach becomes counterproductive very quickly. A better approach is to believe the scientists when they say they don’t have all the facts yet and redirect your attention to something more productive.”
Make it a habit to only check the news once, or at most twice a day, and spend time doing things that decrease rather than increase your anxiety like exercising, meditating, or spending time with friends and family.