When you woke up to the news that there was a potentially dangerous new COVID variant called Omicron — a comic book villain name if there ever was one — you may have felt some things.
You might have had a heavy heart. Felt depressed. Or maybe that tiny, tiny bubble of hope that was growing, the thought that we may have turned a pandemic corner and things would get better, abruptly burst.
The news is hitting at a time, at least in the United States, that is generally about family and friends, gratitude, and giving to others. As an added layer of bleakness, the news was also a blunt reminder that despite the availability of safe and effective boosters in the US, much of the planet doesn’t have access to any type of COVID vaccine at all.
“The pandemic has made people feel traumatized and vulnerable and this Omicron is like a trigger, as it would be for any traumatic situation,” said Dr. Vivian Pender, president of the American Psychiatric Association.
Pender said when the news hit, she herself felt more anxiety, and her patients started calling almost immediately. “I’ve seen them to be more anxious than they have been before, even to the point of panic,” she said.
“When these variants come up, with Delta and now even more so with Omicron, it’s sort of this re-experiencing of the whole 20 months of this,” said Dr. Ashley Matskevich, a Boston-based psychiatrist who is also on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. “It’s like kicking you when you're down.”
We asked mental health experts for tips and advice on how to deal with the latest in a seemingly never-ending wave of not-great pandemic news.
Check in with yourself
Every person reacts differently to the news and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. You may feel anxious, afraid, numb, annoyed, or in denial. You might have even laughed at the utter ludicrousness of the situation.
Just about every emotional reaction is normal, Matskevich said. However, it helps to be aware of how you feel.
“I think COVID, and especially Omicron now, can heighten existing problems,” she said. “It’s really much easier to feel happy in your relationship and friendships on a fair weather day.”
It can affect your mood and how you feel and act toward other people, so it helps to try to remember that as you interact with people, she said.
“It’s not your spouse who's the idiot for not being upset about not being able to go on a trip,” said Matskevich. “It’s a really challenging situation.”
Focus on things you can control
One thing that’s certain — there’s much that is outside our control, and that includes new COVID variants.
“There is the idea of how much this pandemic has taken from us and a really legitimate fear about what else it will take,” Matskevich said. “There are so many things coming that people are looking forward to and it’s really devastating to think we are back in the no-control zone.”
Pender recommends focusing on the things that you can control, such as wearing a mask when indoors, getting vaccinated, and scheduling a booster if you are eligible.
Be aware of things that might trigger anxiety
Matskevich recommends that you notice your reactions to triggers and make behavioral modifications that help you look out for yourself.
She said she initially signed up for a daily roundup of COVID news until she found that it was a problem for her.
“I realized that every day at 6 p.m., when I’d get this email, my mood tanked,” she said. She unsubscribed from the email, and “it did really help,” she said.
She noted that “it’s tough” because it goes against our impulse to stay informed during a situation that appears threatening. However, we also won’t really know for a few weeks how dangerous Omicron is, or how protective current vaccines are against it.
There is no reason to be endlessly on your phone refreshing news feeds, she said. “I try to really place limits on myself in that way.”
Try worry postponement
One coping technique is to schedule a time to get updates on what’s happening with the pandemic.
Worry postponement is “essentially saying, yes I can worry about this, I can doomscroll or whatever it is, but it will be 4 p.m. on Friday,” Matskevich said.
Endlessly reading “a million news articles” can interrupt sleep and lead to sleep deprivation, anxiety, and depression, and reduce the chances that you will do healthy things that reduce stress and anxiety, she said.
“I almost view it as like a news pandemic and a COVID pandemic in terms of the impact on mental health,” says Matskevich.
Recognize when you are ruminating
Rumination is an endless cycle of negative thoughts, a bit like a hamster running on a wheel. It can contribute to anxiety and depression, but you might not even be aware that you are doing it.
“Journaling can be really helpful for that,” Matskevich said. If therapy is an option, it can help you break the cycle of repetitive negative thoughts.
Other than that, strategic distractions, like getting into work, reading, and exercising, are all helpful and healthy coping behaviors when it comes to halting rumination, she said.
Catastrophizing is imagining the most extreme and worst possible scenario in any given situation. For example, if you have an ache or pain, you immediately think you have cancer, or if you have a fight with your partner, you assume that you will break up and that no one will ever love you again.
If you find yourself going there, try giving yourself a reality check, aka a thought challenge, says Matskevich.
“Thought challenging is like swimming up-tide,” Matskevich said. “Say to yourself, is there any evidence that I can find that this might not be true? Or is there any evidence I can find that the best-case scenario is also possible?”
Avoid alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism
Pender says it’s also important to avoid potentially negative coping mechanisms.
For example, she recommends avoiding drugs and alcohol as a temporary way to feel better.
“Using drugs or alcohol to deal with stress makes it worse in the long run,” she said.
Contextualize the news
Matskevich recommends putting any news, including Omicron, into context.
“In psychiatry, we talk about looking at your own evidence,” she said.
It helps to realize that we’ve gotten through this before and “we’ve still landed on the other side, and gone to dinner with friends and gone to events,” she said. By contextualizing the news, it’s a reminder that this is an interim state that will eventually pass, she said.
It’s important not to lose sight of the great scientific accomplishments that have been achieved in terms of vaccines and treatments, as well as “how people have weathered this incredible challenge,” said Dr. Reynold A. Panettieri Jr., vice chancellor for translational medicine and science at Rutgers University.
“If we look at challenges in the world, World War II was seven years, and we are starting our second year,” he said. “We are going to survive also, it’s just that we have to do it on terms that the virus dictates, not necessarily our terms.”
Choose a feel-good activity
It’s OK to temporarily distract yourself by binge-watching a show, reading a book or doing some activity to take your mind off the news.
“It’s a great coping mechanism to be distracted by something warm and fuzzy,” Pender said. “People who have pets are in a good position.”
Matskevich recommends that people choose an activity outside work that is also ongoing, enjoyable, and goal oriented.
She got into distance running for her mental health, but other ideas could be trying every recipe in a cookbook or knitting a sweater.
“Having something that feels motivating and purposeful but also enjoyable is really important,” she said.
Talk to other people
It’s more important than ever to connect with other people, Pender said.
“Loneliness is really hurting people,” she said. “Now is the time to expand your social network as much as possible.”
If you are feeling burned out or overly anxious about this, talk to friends, family, and colleagues so you don’t feel like you are alone and isolated, Pender said. You will probably find a lot of people are feeling the same way you are.
Take care of yourself or others
It’s important to get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, or do anything else that’s healthy and can make you feel better, Pender said. You can try mindfulness, breathing exercises, or meditation.
“Even just taking a walk,” she said.
Volunteering or doing something altruistic can also help, such as working at a soup kitchen or taking calls at a mental health hotline.
“If you are in a position to do that, you should do it,” Pender said. ‘It helps you feel better.”
If none of these are helping, or aren’t helping enough, experts recommend you seek help with a mental health professional.
“If somebody is ruminating so much that they are not able to engage in relationships or they are not able to do their work, then they should get a consultation with a psychiatrist or a primary care provider who can refer to a psychiatrist,” Pender said.
“There's no one on this earth, if they are open to it, who would not benefit from an hour a week of therapy,” Matsekvich said. “Life is hard and therapy is great.”
The pandemic has changed one thing for the better — more mental health professionals offer virtual visits, which can hopefully make it easier to get help. Going forward, mental health care will likely be a combination of virtual and in-person visits.
“For many, it’s made mental health care more accessible,” Pender said. “Telehealth is here to stay.”
The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. The Trevor Project, which provides help and suicide-prevention resources for LGBTQ youth, is 1-866-488-7386. Find other international suicide helplines at Befrienders Worldwide (befrienders.org).