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Dealing With Uncertainty in the Face of Omicron

How to stay positive and manage stress

Caroline Miller

News of Omicron arrived just as we were heading into what we hoped would be a more relaxed and festive holiday season. And while we don’t know yet how deadly the new variant will prove to be, it has already taken a toll by plunging us back into uncertainty.

Will vaccines fail against Omicron? Will schools be closed again? Will it be safe to travel? Gather with family? Shop? Dine out?

Just the thought of wrestling with more uncertainty in the months ahead is exhausting, coming after almost two years of disruption and frustration. The roller coaster of emotions is dizzying. It’s no wonder that the first thought from many stressed parents and teachers has been, “I can’t go through that again!”

“One of the things we’re hearing a lot is fear that we’ll go back to the worst of the pandemic,” says David Anderson, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “It’s reminding people of the worst, most stressful experiences they had. They’ve been doom-scrolling Omicron, trying to get a handle on it, and it’s not working.”

With our reserves of patience largely exhausted, it’s time to focus again on things we can do to tolerate uncertainty, he notes. Here are some strategies that adults can use to get through this latest round of stress and help kids do the same. (For tips on how to help kids stay flexible, click here.)

Why uncertainty is distressing

Uncertainty is hard to tolerate, Dr. Anderson observes, because human beings are wired to respond immediately to danger — fight, flight or freeze. We’re uncomfortable if we can’t identify what we’re facing. We like to feel like we’re in control, and we can’t be if we don’t know what we’re up against. What’s safe and what’s not? As he puts it: “We don’t like staying in that zone where we have to tell ourselves, ‘You need to be prepared, but you don’t know for what.’ “

It’s also especially hard to tolerate frustration and discomfort when you don’t know how long it will last. Omicron has dimmed hopes that we’ll soon be able to put the pandemic behind us. Will this never end? We can’t see an end in sight, but we can get more comfortable living without one.

What can we do to tolerate uncertainty

The tools we can use confront uncertainty are the same tools we use in any situation that involves stress or unhelpful emotions, Dr. Anderson notes. “We can change our thought processes, and we can change our behaviors.”

Stay in the present: As we face the possibility of more disruption, Dr. Anderson recalls the advice he gave to stressed-out families early in the pandemic: the best antidote to worrying about the future is to focus on what’s right in front of us right now. It’s a basic mindfulness skill: try to be in the present, not the past or the future. Instead of spinning out worst-case scenarios (“I can’t handle my kid being home from school again!”) or getting frustrated that you can’t plan effectively (Will we be able to have a big birthday party?), try to connect with what you can see and hear around you. As Dr. Anderson says, “How can you bring yourself back into the little burbles that your baby is making? The funny story your teenager is telling?”

Focus on coping thoughts: With a complex challenge like the pandemic, it rarely works to try to outthink it, to maneuver around all the unknowables and get control of it. Better to focus, Dr. Anderson says, on what psychologists call “coping thoughts” — thoughts that make you more comfortable with uncertainty or inspire your most flexible self. For instance: “I’ve gotten through things like this before, and I’m strong enough to do so again.” “I have family and friends to support me through this stress. Who should I check in with?” Or “I’m just going to focus on today. What’s on the list just for today?”

And coping behaviors: Coping behaviors are things you can to do soothe yourself in a stressful situation or boost your mood. Those could be self-care practices like a fresh air break, music, exercise, calling a friend, a show that makes you laugh. Or they could be jumping into an activity that fully engages you. Early in the pandemic many people reported finding activities that made them feel positive, from cooking to learning a skill to organizing closets (not everyone’s idea of fun, but Lena Dunham’s go-to mood booster).   

Practice distress tolerance: “One of the toughest things about really intense emotions is the sense that this feeling is going to last forever, that there is no escape,” notes Dr. Anderson. “But it’s not true. We know that most emotions evolve and change and lessen over time.” Once you realize that, it’s easier to acknowledge that you are in pain right now, but you can ride it out, and it will diminish. “It can help to use some of those coping behaviors like reaching out to a friend or soothing sensory experiences,” he adds.

Ration alarming news: When the news is awash with disturbing pandemic predictions and possibilities, it may help to limit your exposure to it. “Most people have difficulty resisting the next really clickbaity doomsday headline,” Dr. Anderson says. But it can help your mood to resist. One strategy is to look for news and information on the positive side. Another is to put a timer on your news consumption. Dr. Anderson sticks to a diet of 15 minutes of news apps in the morning and watching evening news shows. Beyond that, he says, “there’s a point of diminishing returns — the stories aren’t adding to my level of being informed but they’re adding to my difficult emotions.”

Focus on what’s better this time: Instead of thinking about how the new variant could take us back to March 2020, remind yourself of the breakthroughs that have made us better equipped to handle the virus. We haven’t been able to “beat” it but we understand much better how the virus works, hence what’s risky (airborne transmission indoors) and what’s not (infection from boxes of groceries). We have not only vaccines that dramatically reduce risk of serious illness and death, but also medicines that can be taken after infection. We have at-home tests that should (especially when they’re less expensive) lower the risk of family gatherings.

Focus on what worked before: While it’s distressing to be reminded of the worst of what we’ve been through, it’s helpful to think about the things that worked to get us through the toughest moments last time. Was it making scones? Taking walks? A hot bath? Watching funny YouTube videos?

Assess risk and take appropriate steps: One of the most challenging things about uncertainty is making decisions when you don’t have enough information. Is that big Christmas dinner a bad idea, given Omicron? Should we keep the kids away from the grandparents — again? Different families have different vulnerabilities, so decisions can vary widely. To keep worry and risk assessment from taking over EVERY moment, Dr. Anderson suggests taking an inventory of your family’s risks and deciding whether you want to adjust your activities in the near future.  Then stick by your decision and move on. You can make more adjustments when the situation changes.

Seek help if you need it:  It’s important to keep in mind that the impact of the pandemic has been anything but uniform. For some the lockdowns and disruptions have been challenging but manageable. For many, especially those with small children, it’s been intensely stressful. And for those who lost family members — as well as, in many cases, jobs, homes, schooling, financial stability and food security — the pandemic has been traumatic. Mental health suffered, in both adults and children. Learning suffered. And for many, it’s not over. Even if you feel you’ve survived the worst, a new spike could reactivate emotional stress, Dr. Anderson notes. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, support from a mental health professional can be crucial for a healthy recovery.