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How To Deal With Renewed COVID Anxiety

To mask or not to mask became the question at the tail end of what many wanted to be a "hot vax summer." Instead, uncertainly about life after the pandemic, and if such a thing will ever exist, lingers.
Scott Olson
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To mask or not to mask became the question at the tail end of what many wanted to be a "hot vax summer." Instead, uncertainly about life after the pandemic, and if such a thing will ever exist, lingers.

Updated August 14, 2021 at 10:58 AM ET

Many people were calling this the "hot vax summer," as growing vaccination numbers against the coronavirus meant a rebound in travel, and early summer CDC guidance said it was safe to return to eating indoors at restaurants and bars.

"I think people were starting to think that there's a light at the end of the tunnel in the spring," Dr. Lucy McBride, a primary care physician in Washington, D.C, says. "People were getting vaccinated. Case rates and hospitalization rates from COVID-19 were dropping. And we knew at that moment in the spring, through accumulated evidence, that kids are protected at least in part by being surrounded by immune-vaccinated or naturally immune adults."

Things look starkly different now. The highly contagious delta variant is driving a new surge of COVID-19 cases throughout the country. Masks mandates are back, and instead of experiencing nerves over relearning how to socialize with people in person, many are dealing with feelings of anxiety, frustration and grief, knowing that this pandemic is far from over.

"Does anyone have an antidote for emotional whiplash? My vaccinated patients are asking," Dr. McBride tweeted last month. Her own advice is that anxiety is a justified emotional response: "It's how we run from danger," she says. But it's also important to remember "to calibrate it to our particular reality," otherwise we risk running our bodies and minds into the ground.

Dr. McBride spoke with All Things Considered's Ari Shapiro about creating coping strategies for anxiety, the effects of decision fatigue — a deteriorating quality of decision-making when faced with serious questions like whether to cancel trips home or taking kids out of in-person school — and how the path forward rests on a careful line between hope and realistic expectations. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the conversation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On accepting feelings of anxiety, grief and frustration

The first step is acknowledging the trauma that we've experienced, the stacked stressors we've all been through over the last 17 months. That is real: It takes a toll on our bodies and minds. And once we allow ourselves to feel those complicated feelings, then we can unlock some coping strategies like making sure we exercise, prioritize sleep, connect with our loved ones and follow the facts. Make sure that you are looking to experts, including your trusted primary care provider, for nuanced advice to help marry broad public health advice with your unique situation. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for human behavior in a pandemic. So, we really need to drill down into what it is that gives us a sense of safety and security, what it is we need to feel protected from disease and despair in tandem, and that is going to look different for each person.

On how to deal with decision fatigue

There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for human behavior in a pandemic.

We're wired, we're hypervigilant and we're tired; so many decisions, so much information. We need to realize that this is normal and that we need to give ourselves a little latitude and grace as we navigate these complex times. When we're exhausted, when our guard is down, that's when we're more prone to excess anxiety that's out of proportion to reality. That then drives behaviors that may not be appropriate for that particular situation. At the same time, we need to make sure we are protecting ourselves and our families and our communities from disease and despair. So I'm not saying I have the answer for everybody on this program; I'm saying let's recognize it, let's name it, and then let's navigate it with facts in the driver's seat and fear out of the driver's seat.

On maintaining hope while managing expectations for the future

It's justified to be mourning the loss of life as we knew it. It's justified to be emotionally exhausted watching the ongoing death and destruction. We also need to realize that amidst loss, there is reason for hope. We know that these vaccines against COVID-19 are extraordinarily effective, even against delta, at preventing the worst consequences. And we know exactly how to protect kids in school. We need, really, for everybody in this country to get vaccinated and to protect each other so we can move on in a healthy way.

At the same time, we also need to realize that COVID is here for the duration. It's not about eliminating risk; that's just not on the menu. But what we need to do is, just as we have to modulate fears so that we protect ourselves without driving ourselves crazy, we need to manage expectations for what life is going to look like once we have this virus under better control.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.