Of all the pandemic waves the United States has weathered so far, this one feels uniquely baffling. Omicron is on its way out, and states are relaxing their mask mandates, but close to 200,000 people are still testing positive each day. The country is more vaccinated than ever before, but not vaccinated enough to stop hospitals from filling up with COVID patients. And while we’re still dealing with this variant, another one capable of breaking through those defenses could still emerge. With the coronavirus continuing to surprise us at every turn, the only thing that is certain now is uncertainty.
At this point, many Americans are no longer letting the pandemic interfere with their lives. Some never bothered with safety measures; some are finally just beginning to loosen up as case numbers fall. Meanwhile, for other people—especially the immunocompromised and parents of young, unvaccinated children—post-Omicron life is downright maddening: It’s still tough to figure out how safe being indoors with others is, whether to let kids go maskless at school, or if whatever variant comes next will thwart your travel plans.
As this crisis drags into its third year, the anxiety of not knowing what’s ahead of us is sparking even more pandemic fatigue, Catherine Bagwell, a psychologist at Emory University, told me. “We are starting to see that [uncertainty] spill over and affect mental health,” she said. Unfortunately, there’s no secret hack to make the pandemic less uncertain right now. But learning to live with ambiguity can go a long way in helping get us to the end of this crisis. “We can’t really predict well what’s going to happen, but accepting that we can’t predict the future is something that’s fairly freeing,” Tara Kirk Sell, a risk-communication researcher at Johns Hopkins, told me. All the advice that experts shared with me converged on a single idea: The best way to prepare for an uncertain future is to stay as flexible as you can.
Of course, doing so is easier said than done. The rigidity in certain pandemic routines, such as insisting on eating outdoors, can make it harder and more stressful to adapt when the situation changes. And these days, the situation is always changing. In the most basic sense, a more flexible mindset is necessary because it is aligned with scientists’ evolving understanding of COVID. The constant changes in public-health messaging during the pandemic have been bewildering and poorly handled, and this highly erratic and still poorly understood virus does not do us any favors.
When COVID numbers begin to improve, as they are doing right now, flexibility empowers us to take advantage of the situation. As The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu recently wrote, “This stretch may be defined less by what we can’t do, and more by what we safely, carefully, finally can.” Likewise, flexibility gives us space to pivot if things worsen. Sell, for example, lets her son play in an indoor soccer league, but she has taken him out of games when she’s noticed that other players are clearly sick. “Have the flexibility to say, ‘I don’t have to have the same standards all the time,’” she said. “It’s not a bad thing to say ‘New information will change my outlook.’”
Hearing this may come as a relief to anyone who has felt sheepish about constantly changing their personal safety standards, as if the inconsistency reveals some character defect, such as being indecisive or a worrywart. I feel particularly silly every time I explain to my (less anxious) friends why I felt comfortable going to an event one day but not the next. Especially right now, when Americans’ pandemic behavior varies so widely, staying flexible can be easier if you communicate your personal standards to your friends, and find ways to spend time together that allow everyone to feel comfortable. A good friend probably won’t hold it against you.
Moreover, giving yourself a break is important, Karin Coifman, an associate professor of psychology at Kent State University, told me. Part of what makes post-Omicron life so stressful is that knowing what precautions to take is so hard. Especially if you’re fully vaccinated, you don’t have to feel guilty or ashamed about relaxing some of your personal rules. “It may be that this week you’re feeling that you’re not ready to go out into the world so much yet,” she said. “Allow yourself the flexibility, and a little bit of compassion. Allow yourself to reevaluate, to change your mind, and to try things out.” The same goes for consuming information about COVID. Although staying up to date on local pandemic numbers—case counts, hospitalizations, positivity rates—is important, it’s okay to take a break from doing so if it causes so much dread that you want to disengage entirely from seeking out information about what’s going on. “Sometimes you need to time out,” Coifman said.
Unfortunately, while flexibility can help with the stress of post-Omicron life, staying flexible is also harder to do in times of stress, Coifman added. But you can train yourself to get better at it. “We have to increase our tolerance for not knowing what’s to come,” Pauline Boss, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota, told me. “The way to increase tolerance for ambiguity is simply this: Do something different.” This can take many forms, such as finding a new route to work or signing up for a class on a topic you’ve never explored. Boss recommends getting to know people outside your bubble. New people and situations allow you to practice adapting to different circumstances and become more confident in your ability to do so. The pandemic could take a number of different directions from here, and this training equips you to handle whatever new or uncomfortable situation may arise next.
And although considering the pandemic’s next turn might stoke your anxiety, now is the time to do it. Boss recommended thinking through what you’re going to do no matter what happens: if Omicron was the last big wave, if the current uncertainty continues, and if the pandemic worsens once again. The idea is that you become mentally prepared for any scenario and more willing to accept it instead of waiting for the moment that “it’s either over or it’s not over,” Boss said. “It’s not going to work that way.” By picturing yourself in all these scenarios now, rather than when they happen, you’ll hopefully have a mental playbook for tackling whatever the future throws at us.
Fortunately, people have proved capable of flexibility throughout the pandemic. The past two years have been extraordinarily brutal, but in small ways, people have adapted to the chaos and found satisfaction in the things they can control. For me, keeping up with a monthly Dungeons & Dragons campaign has provided both a creative outlet and a sense of regularity. Remember that no matter what happens, humans are quite resilient. “As a field, we used to assume that if bad things happen, people are going to struggle, but we can now have the assumption that when bad things happen, most people are going to be okay,” said Coifman. It’s not ideal, but people can live for a long time with uncertainty, she added. Many people already do.
One day, the pandemic will finally end. Until then, it’s important to remember that you’re equipped to handle the ambiguity, even when you don’t feel like you are. Vaccines give us a head start on whatever wave might come next, but don’t undervalue the past two years of experience with facing the unknown. “People are bending with the pressure like a tree bending in the storm,” Boss said. “You’re doing some things differently, and you are being more patient than before. Know that you’re doing better than you thought.”