At the start of the pandemic, practically everything was unknown: How did the coronavirus spread? Why does it affect people differently? How long would we need to social distance? When might we have a vaccine? While some questions were answered just as quickly, a new crop of uncertainties emerged throughout 2020 and 2021.
Though the widespread vaccine rollout in the US seemed to provide a reprieve from the worst of pandemic life, the progress was in many ways short-lived. Now, after nearly two years of fear, grief, and day-to-day pandemic turmoil — canceled plans, delayed weddings, missed milestones — the emergence of the omicron variant throws another wrench into what we hoped would finally be post-pandemic life. Once again, we’re being told to wait and see: Wait for research on how infectious omicron is, how serious infections with the variant are, how the vaccines stand against it, and whether we should alter our risk calculus. This informational purgatory makes it difficult to make plans, from returning to office settings to planning holiday gatherings and winter travel.
All this uncertainty is inherently stressful, research shows. The human brain doesn’t cope well with uncertainty and defaults to anxiety in the face of a potential threat. Instead, we much prefer routines and feeling in control. It’s no surprise that a pandemic, which has destroyed any semblance of routine and personal control, has wreaked havoc on mental health. According to an August 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association, 63 percent of respondents said uncertainty over what the next few months will bring is a source of stress; half said the pandemic has made planning for their future feel impossible.
If you can feel the latest strain of uncertainty gnawing away at your mental health and well-being, here are some constructive ways to cope with the ongoing precariousness of our present moment.
Acknowledge what you’ve lost
Everyone, whether they’ve lost a loved one to the virus or not, has experienced a loss during the pandemic: loss of a job, of community, of a routine, of a milestone celebration. Pauline Boss, author of The Myth of Closure: Ambiguous Loss in a Time of Pandemic and Change and professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, coined the term “ambiguous loss” to describe this experience — the departure of something more amorphous than a relationship or a life. “Not everyone has had a death,” Boss says, “but everyone has lost something.”
To help cope with the anger or depression you may feel as the pandemic continues to disrupt travel or holiday plans, Boss says to be explicit with yourself about what you’ve already lost. Even if you’ve been lucky enough not to lose a loved one, your losses are still painful and meaningful. Naming the loss helps ground your emotions and move on. “When we’ve given ourselves appropriate time to mourn those losses, then can we look at that point of loss and see what’s on the other side,” says clinical psychologist Jenny Wang.
Make plans, but stay flexible
Since day one of this crisis, being nimble and adjusting to changing guidelines on the fly has been integral to coping with the pandemic. This flexibility is still key, perhaps even more so when your patience has run thin and psychological exhaustion is high from nearly two years of changing circumstances. Right now, you should still make future plans (research shows having something to look forward to improves mood) while listening to the latest public health recommendations and being prepared to change course if that guidance shifts.
“You may have to be more flexible with your plans and gatherings, which might limit options,” says Allison Chase, the clinical director of Pathlight Mood and Anxiety Center. “Limited options are better than no options when trying to connect with others or take a vacation. It might not be exactly what friends or families may have hoped for; however, this is where it is important to pause and be grateful for what you are able to do.”
Taking a day-by-day approach may feel antithetical when it comes to plans, but given the uncertain nature of the present, “we have to live for the day we have in front of us,” Boss says.
Lean on your networks
It’s admittedly a bummer to make plans you’re excited about, only to have to cancel or postpone them. However, if there’s a takeaway from last year’s lockdowns, it’s that loneliness is terrible for our mental health. Take advantage of being vaccinated and having access to vaccines, and make an effort to connect with your communities. Networks can be an anchor in yet another unmooring time. Even making plans to FaceTime, call, or text a friend if you don’t feel safe meeting in person is beneficial. “It’s easy in this time to want to retreat and hide away — and that might be restorative for you, and if that’s the case, great,” Wang says. “Community support is key, and being intentional and deliberate about finding that support is really important.”
Avoid thinking about the worst
While Wang says dreaming up worst-case scenarios can help us plan and problem-solve for the future, it’s possible to over-rely on this type of thinking and get stuck in a perpetual loop of catastrophizing. As a result, you might end up wracked with anxiety, and instead of working toward a solution, you’re immobilized by fear.
Boss suggests countering catastrophizing with “both/and” thinking, which provides space to acknowledge two seemingly conflicting ideas; instead of “We’re surely going back into lockdown and it will be the worst,” try “I hate the unpredictability of this pandemic, and I will get through it.”
Rather than wondering “What if the worst happens?” Wang recommends asking “What is my current reality?” If that reality involves the sense that the New Year’s Eve party you’ve been looking forward to might not happen as planned, you can acknowledge your frustrations at having to change course. Then, focus on a workable solution, given the circumstances and limitations, Wang says. This might involve hosting a belated, outdoors New Year’s celebration on a sunny day.
Focus on what’s in your control
One way to increase tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity, Boss says, is to make a concentrated effort to relinquish control. Implementing public health policies that would bring case numbers down might not be something you personally can do, but you still have authority over your own life, from how you fill your spare time to how you react to the latest news.
Bread baking earned meme status early in quarantine, and with good reason: It’s a hobby that allows people to be in direct control of the outcome, Boss says. Aside from baking, activities like knitting, doing puzzles, or playing games can replicate this feeling of control on a small scale or via a project you can successfully see through from beginning to end.
If and when the world does throw another curveball, our reactions will be practically the only thing we can control, Wang says. “It’s kind of like when you’re flying and everybody’s flights have been canceled, and some people approach the flight person in a fit of rage while other people are very adaptable and are understanding,” she says. “Where do you want to fall in terms of where you show up in the midst of that change?” It’s okay to be upset, but once your initial emotional reaction has subsided, try to make a conscious effort to take action and make decisions from a place of patience and flexibility versus a place of resistance and denial.
Find a glimmer of hope
For most of 2020, Covid-19 vaccines remained a point of optimism; once we were all vaccinated, the thinking went, life could go back to “normal.” Now that reality has shown otherwise, it may be difficult to muster up another ounce of hope. But even in moments of despair, we need to have aspirations, Wang says.
Whether you find that in your faith, your relationships, or a meaningful pursuit you want to take on post-pandemic, you need something to help you make it through the next day. Even something as simple as sharing what you’re grateful for at the end of each day has been shown to improve happiness. “We’re talking a lot about existential questions here,” Wang says. “We can only do our best to listen to ourselves and to really be attuned to what it is that we need in order to keep taking that next one step forward.”
Know the brain isn’t good at handling uncertainty — use that to your advantage
To be in a state of prolonged uncertainty is extremely stressful, Boss says. But rather than seeing our brains’ natural reaction to uncertainty as an obstacle, try to take it as “something that can get us out of routines that we may have held for decades or years — and that’s not always bad,” Boss says. “It will lead to change.”
This change can come in the form of how you approach even the mundane moments in life, Wang says. The current unpredictability is a stark reminder of how fleeting life can be, she says. “What can we do to even just be aware and notice and cherish the very simplistic moments of our days? How can I make this life one that is meaningful, that offers slices of joy and that provides a sense of relief in the midst of how heavy it’s been to live within the pandemic?”