COVID-19 Variant Anxiety Is Real—But Experts Want You To Manage It, Not Eradicate It

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With respect to our collective anxiety levels, the past two years of navigating life have largely played out like a ping-pong match of anxiety levels. At the onset of the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020, we hunkered down for an amount of time we couldn't then even comprehend. Then, as we learned more about how the virus is transmitted (and not transmitted), in many places, folks started inching back outward into creature comforts during the summer, like eating outdoors at restaurants and having socially distanced gatherings with small groups of friends. But as the weather got colder and cases surged in many areas of the country, many headed back inside and returned to lockdown precautions. But by spring 2021, hope was found in the form of several FDA-approved COVID vaccines… until the Delta variant began spreading over the summer, raising concerns over how safe and protected we really are, even with vaccines available. More assurance came with the approval of booster shots and clearance for children to get vaccinated this fall, but, most recently, the Omicron varitant is spiking worry yet again. Needless to say, if you’re dealing with COVID variant anxiety, that’s perfectly understandable—and it may even offer you protective benefits.

Experts In This Article

“Anxiety is an alert system,” says clinical psychologist Helene Brenner, PhD. Our anxiety serves “to alert us to possible a danger or threat.” According to Dr. Brenner, news of an emerging variant leads many folks to react in one of two ways: either “put their head in the sand and...deny it’s a problem, or get really overwhelmed with it and feel like now it's such a threat, they can't go out.”

This fight-or-flight response is in line with uncertainty being a particularly hard reality for humans to tolerate. With this in mind, licensed psychotherapist and neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, says emerging COVID variants are ultimately an issue of uncertainty, which is why they cause such disorienting anxiety. Not knowing whether the new variant will be more transmissible and severe and also being unsure of how protective vaccines are against it are questions with uncertain answers, which only go to stoke COVID variant anxiety.

But because COVID variant anxiety does serve the helpful purpose of alerting us to a real danger, the answer to overcoming it perhaps isn’t to eradicate it but rather to learn how to manage it. Read on for three expert-backed tips for learning to live with a palatable amount of anxiety brought on by COVID variants.

3 ways to manage COVID variant anxiety, according to mental-health experts

1. Don’t suppress your anxiety

Remember, the goal isn’t to eradicate your COVID variant anxiety (since you need it to alert you to real threats), but rather to  “notice it and process it,” says psychotherapist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Meaning, if I read something that makes me anxious about the new variant, and I feel anxious, I'll pause. I'll breathe."

“When we pay attention to our anxiety and move through it, we are helping the central nervous system downregulate.” —Carla Marie Manly, PhD

From there, introspection is the name of the game. Check back in with yourself to see how you’re doing after practicing breathwork. “When we pay attention to our anxiety and move through it, we are helping the central nervous system downregulate,” says Dr. Manly.

2. Stay informed, but don’t let the news consume you

Especially when it comes to deadly diseases, it’s crucial (and potentially life-saving) to be aware of the latest news. That said, you also stand to benefit from stepping away from the news and social media once you’re up to date. Otherwise, the experience of repeatedly being bombarded with the information can wreak havoc on our emotions and, in turn, our minds. “It becomes a stressor in and of itself,” says Dr. Wise. “Too much social media hijacks dopamine in our brain, which impairs our ability to be able to relax.”

According to Dr. Manly, the answer here is to be aware of exactly what and how much you’re consuming and when. She suggests checking the news in the morning so that your brain has the full day ahead to process that information as well as sort how you feel about it. If you find yourself particularly affected when you watch the news, try listening to it on the radio or reading about it. Dr. Manly says removing the component of visual stimulation can lead your brain to be less affected. Mindfully pay attention to how different forms of consumption affect you, and opt for whatever form allows you to stay most informed and mentally strong.

3. Do things that you enjoy (safely)

This might mean spending quality, in-person time with loved ones—especially considering that the early pandemic days deprived many people of those interactions. “Isolation also has a long-term effect on people. I see more depression, anxiety, and long-term problems when they're not connecting to anybody because they're home all the time,” Dr. Brenner says.

Of course, not everyone is comfortable hanging out with people in person, and perhaps the news of the variant led some to stop feeling comfortable doing so, even if they previously had. If real-time hangs aren’t currently in your comfort zone, try going for a walk, dancing, or coloring. Whatever you choose to do, just make sure to (try to) have fun and relax. “Relaxation and fun are diametrically opposed to anxiety,” says Dr. Brenner. “You can’t be having fun and be anxious at the same time. Do what makes you laugh. Be around people that make you laugh. Watch things that make you laugh. Do some silly dancing. [Inject] some levity [to] all the seriousness.”

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