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Does your brain feel a little like this? Science can explain it. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Does your brain feel a little like this? Science can explain it. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 22, 2022

What is the omicron outbreak doing to our anxieties?

Does your brain feel a little like this? Science can explain it. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)
Does your brain feel a little like this? Science can explain it. (Image Design: Tina Tiller)

As Covid-19 shifts, so does our response. But how are our brains responding to this latest variant?

We’re two years into a global pandemic that doesn’t discriminate. It’s touched every part of our lives – our physical health, our financial wellbeing, our ability to travel, work and in some cases, to have any semblance of a normal life.

Our emotional wellbeing isn’t exempt. From worries about whether we’ll get it to stress about passing the virus onto someone else, Covid-19 creates an environment where many of the determinants of poor mental health are exacerbated.  One study estimated that between January 2020 and January 2021, the pandemic added ​​53.2 million cases of major depressive disorder globally, a 27.6% increase, along with 76.2 million cases of anxiety disorder, an increase of 25.6%.

“I think we’ve seen, tracing right back to the very start of the pandemic, lots of health anxiety, a lot of worrying that people were going to get infected,” says Dr Dougal Sutherland, a clinical psychologist at Victoria University. “Over time, I think particularly with protracted lockdowns, there was much more that people worried about – their financial wellbeing, how they would live if their business closes or if they lost their job.”

How does omicron change all that?

Omicron is different from the previous variants of the disease, we know that. It spreads more widely, and is easier to catch. It is also thought to cause less severe disease in those who get it. The government’s response to omicron is also different. Gone is the age of lockdown. The restrictions placed on us are ones that increasingly place the burden on us to make the right choice for our own situation. Despite rising case numbers, you can still choose (if you’re vaccinated) to drink in a bar, attend a gig – if it’s under 100 people – or go shopping in a mall where you could possibly be exposed to Covid-19. 

That might sound like a recipe for increased anxiety, but Sutherland says many people he’s speaking to  have a fairly blasé attitude to the risks posed by omicron. It’s a conversation we’ve probably all had – “We’re all gonna get it, that’s how it is, let’s get on with it”. Those conversations, however, have a very specific definition of “we”. It’s a definition that excludes people who will be significantly impacted if they do get Covid – immunocompromised people, people who have to self-isolate alone, the very young, the elderly.

“I think there’s still a significant group of people, particularly those who have some sort of underlying health conditions and may be much more negatively affected by the physical consequences,” says Sutherland. “Those people have had a heightened level of anxiety with omicron, and with that move to personal responsibility, as opposed to societal shutdown.”

People waiting for a Covid-19 test in Auckland CBD in November 2020 (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)g

This move to personal responsibility taps into two key aspects of anxiety: lack of control and lack of predictability. With omicron, however, it’s less people being worried about their own personal responsibility, and more about how much care somebody else is taking. With the spread of omicron being the most unpredictable yet, people have less control than ever.

“I think sometimes people can cope with unpredictability if they feel there is something they can do to control it,” says Sutherland, noting that studies demonstrate how engaging in even relatively small health-related behaviours – washing your hands, wearing your mask – can help reduce anxiety. “That’s probably because they have some sense of control. Even though Covid’s not particularly predictable, people don’t know what’s going to happen, but they can do something to have some level of control.”

Sutherland believes that omicron, for some people, feels a little bit more predictable. While most people might find the prospect of catching this variant less scary, those who are immunocompromised or at more risk from becoming seriously sick if they catch it need to take extra steps to gain control, like staying home or self-isolating for some time. “Trying to get back some sense of control is arguably what anxiety wants us to do. It wants us to get active, and do something to get control of the situation where you feel you have a little more control. It’s designed to be an alarm system which activates a response from us.”

As expected, social media has its own part to play, and, as with many aspects of those cursed platforms, there are good sides and bad sides to social media use during the omicron surge. “The readily accessible nature of our social contacts through it has probably been a real catalyst for anxiety, because you have greater exposure to other people’s experiences.” He compares it to a few decades ago, when a relative getting an infection like Covid would likely be relayed to you in a letter that might take three weeks to arrive.

“Whereas now, I can tell you in three minutes.”

On the bright side, the ease of connection offered by social media has helped many of us cope better with extended periods of isolation. We’re aware of other people’s experiences – their hardships, what they’re going through, their own anxiety. “It’s a normalising experience,” says Sutherland. “It lets us know that other people feel like this too, and it’s OK. It gives you social licence that what you’re experiencing is actually OK.”

“But, arguably, it’s easy to worry about your friends and relatives in other countries if you can hear from them immediately rather than having to wait for a letter in three weeks’ time.”

Various masked and unmasked shoppers on Oxford Street in London on July 3 (Photo: Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images)

What about the long-term effects, though? We’ve been living through this for two years now. That’s a decent chunk of your life, no matter how old you are. Sutherland points to recent research from the University of Otago, tracking people’s level of anxiety and distress during lockdown.

“What they found was that there were definitely peaks during lockdowns and then it tended to return back to pretty much normal for most people. It’s quite likely that will continue for the vast bulk of people.”

This is good news. Sutherland believes it shows that we respond appropriately when something bad is going on – we become worried, we become anxious and we change our behaviour as a result of that. “We’ve done things like complying with lockdowns, staying home when we’re supposed to, but when that pressure goes off, we revert back to normal.

“In the future, there might not be much of a long-term effect. We just go back to how we normally were and then the next thing to worry about comes along and we get worried again.”

Another positive: Sutherland believes the pandemic has done a lot to aid understanding of the psychological side effects of a physical health crisis. Most of us now understand  that living through the pandemic, even if we never contract Covid-19 ourselves, has had a profound impact on us. 

For Sutherland, he’s hopeful that the pandemic will be “just another step in accepting and being aware of psychological and mental health effects, and allowing people to experience those without feeling judged.

“That’s probably a good thing for us as a country in the long term.”

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