NEWS

Here's How You Can Mentally Prepare For the Omicron Variant

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Key Takeaways

  • Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant, has been detected in more than 60 countries.
  • Scientists are still trying to determine how Omicron's transmissibility and severity of illness compares to previous COVID-19 variants, such as Delta.
  • Nonetheless, many people are concerned about how Omicron could affect their lives—which experts say is completely natural.

Just when we thought we’d come to terms with the Delta variant of COVID-19, along comes Omicron. And the timing couldn’t be worse. If you were looking forward to a holiday season with fewer restrictions than last year, COVID-19-induced anxiety may be rearing its ugly head. We’re all wondering what this means for our lives and our families (and our mental health) as we move into 2022. 

“The famous line from Jaws, ‘Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,’ could easily apply to us and the pandemic,” says psychologist Sheila Forman, PhD. “Just when you thought it was safe to celebrate the holidays with loved ones, a new variant shows up that disrupts everything.”

Some people can take this news in their stride and accept another less than jolly Christmas, while others find their anxiety kicking backup into high gear. Here's what you need to know about Omicron, and how you can keep your mental health on track.

What Do We Know About Omicron So Far?

The truth is, not too much. At least, nothing for sure as yet. “Preliminary indications seem to suggest increased transmissibility but less severe illness compared to the Delta variant,” says Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence Mission Hospital and Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. 

Dr. Bailey adds that there’s no clear signal that COVID-19 vaccines and preventative and therapeutic agents will lack efficacy against the Omicron variant.

This is reassuring news at this point, and there’s no reason to be more concerned about Omicron than previous COVID-19 variants. “It’s too early to justify a high level of concern given the availability of effective inpatient and now outpatient therapeutic agents, plus preliminary indications that vaccinations and monoclonal antibodies should remain protective,” says Dr. Bailey. 

Another positive is the impact of growing numbers of fully vaccinated/boosted individuals and those with post-recovery natural immunity, which doctors now believe is equally protective to vaccination. 

Don’t Worry About Worrying  

Despite reassuring words from some medical experts, it’s natural to be concerned about Omicron. For some people, this may be exacerbated by worsening mood and anxiety symptoms linked to the holidays, says Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Mindpath Health

“These times may remind them of loved ones who have passed and some painful, traumatic memories,” Dr. Magavi explains. The Omicron variant may add to their anxiety if they worry about losing more loved ones, which may lead to social distancing to protect their families, which can then result in feelings of isolation. 

“Many individuals perceive the holidays as a new beginning, so the new variant can feel like a regression,” says Dr. Magavi. 

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Many individuals perceive the holidays as a new beginning, so the new variant can feel like a regression.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

Even people who are fully vaccinated or not at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 may feel anxious about Omicron, because so much remains unknown about this variant. 

This uncertainty can make individuals feel helpless, hypervigilant, and anxious,” says Dr. Magavi. “Change itself can stimulate the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, and trigger surges of anxiety.” And when change involves potentially exposing oneself and one’s loved ones to COVID-19, the consequences could include insomnia, panic attacks, depression, impaired cognition, and worsening functionality, she adds. 

COVID-19 has in many ways made our world seem unsafe, adds Dr. Forman. "The things we knew, took for granted, or counted on for comfort are no longer reliably there," she says. "Losing them leaves many of us feeling vulnerable and exposed. Even those of us who trust science and trust the vaccines can feel helpless and defenseless."

Coping Strategies For Omicron (And Beyond) 

The first thing Dr. Magavi recommends to her patients (both children and adults) is to familiarize themselves with the protocols in place and resources available at work and school to promote safety and overall wellbeing during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

“This knowledge and related discussions with family members could create a sense of control and alleviate anxiety,” she says. “Having open conversations with loved ones can help us process emotions in a healthy manner.” And it doesn’t have to be a soul-searching session—something as basic as naming emotions and identifying associated bodily sensations can help people remain mindful of their feelings and perceptions of the situation. 

Sheila Forman, PhD

While we are not in this pandemic alone, it sure can feel like we are. Having some to talk to about your fears, disappointments and concerns is invaluable.

— Sheila Forman, PhD

Dr. Magavi also advises taking breaks from reading about COVID-19 or watching the news. “Instead, spend time exercising, journaling, and practicing mindfulness techniques to help decrease ruminative thinking,” she says. 

Forman recommends meditation, an age-old tool for managing anxiety. “A daily meditation practice of just a few minutes can calm the body, mind and spirit,” she says. There are many meditation apps available to get you started, such as Headspace and Calm

“While we are not in this pandemic alone, it sure can feel like we are,” says Forman. “Having some to talk to about your fears, disappointments and concerns is invaluable.” Ask your physician, spiritual counselor or Google for a referral. 

What This Means For You

The best protection against Omicron is to get vaccinated and get your booster shot as soon as you're eligible.

And don't forget about the basic pillars of good physical and mental health: a solid sleep routine, regular, nutritious meals, and limited alcohol intake.

If you're still struggling with anxiety or fear about Omicron, reach out to somebody for help. Mental health organizations and online directories can help you connect with a therapist.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. World Health Organization. Enhancing readiness for omicron (B.1.1.529): Technical brief and priority actions for member states.