By Christina Caron
Dec. 6, 2021
We were just coming to terms with Delta.
Then, before we had a chance to finish our Thanksgiving leftovers, a newer and potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant called Omicron became a household name. Anxiety took hold, sweeping over the stock market and raising uneasy questions: Is it still safe to fly? Can we attend holiday parties? Wait, is Christmas canceled?
Last Wednesday, the first case of Omicron was reported in the United States. We will learn more in the coming weeks, but for now there is little evidence that the variant is capable of outsmarting vaccines and the World Health Organization has emphasized that it is not yet clear whether Omicron spreads more easily from person to person or causes more severe disease than other variants.
The scientific understanding of the virus is constantly changing and so, too, is the virus itself. Yet we keep scanning the horizon for an endpoint instead of accepting the way things are. As we continue to ride the pandemic roller coaster, learning to cope with our unpredictable world is not only possible, but also necessary.
“We trick ourselves as best we can into thinking that we can control everything and that we know how things are going to unfold,” said Dr. Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist in New York City whose forthcoming book, “The Zen of Therapy,” explores how his training in Buddhism and meditation influences his work as a therapist. “If there’s anything to be learned from this, it’s that the bedrock of our reality really is — and always has been — uncertainty.”
Find Your Flow
Kate Sweeny, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, who has been studying the feelings associated with uncertainty for nearly 20 years, said activities that generate “flow” can provide “exquisite distraction,” a break from the continual fixation on ourselves and the problems of the world.
Flow — a concept popularized by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — typically happens when you’re doing something meaningful and “in the zone,” Dr. Sweeny explained.
Unlike when we engage in passive relaxation, for example watching a movie or listening to music, flow activities blend work and play, and are so compelling that time seems to fall away. It could be playing a video game (this has actually been studied), gardening or doing yoga.
In a paper published in 2019, Dr. Sweeny and her colleagues examined three studies that tested whether activities providing flow can improve people’s mental well-being while awaiting uncertain news. As it turned out, generating flow made waiting a little easier.
“Almost any activity can be a flow activity if you pay attention to a few features,” Dr. Sweeny said.
First, make sure you’re being challenged at the right level. If an activity is too easy then you’ll get bored.
Second, you should receive feedback for your efforts. The feedback doesn’t need to be from a person. When working on a jigsaw puzzle, for example, you can clearly see the progress you’re making.
Third, establish clear goals so that you can increase the challenge level as needed.
Meditation can help calm an agitated mind that swings from thought to thought, a mental state Buddhists refer to as “monkey mind,” said Tim Olmsted, a practitioner of meditation for nearly 50 years and founder of the Pema Chodron Foundation.
The foundation is dedicated to sharing the teachings of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist teacher and nun. Although Pema Chodron is best known for writing “When Things Fall Apart,” another book of hers, “Comfortable With Uncertainty,” which was originally published nearly 20 years ago, may be most applicable to the whiplash that we are experiencing right now.
In it, she wrote: “Sticking with uncertainty is how we learn to relax in the midst of chaos, how we learn to be cool when the ground beneath us suddenly disappears.”
Meditation helps navigate uncertainty by teaching us that while there will always be external stressors, we don’t need to be dominated by those problems, Mr. Olmsted said.
“We can still find resilience and peace,” he continued. “Attending to our mind — letting it rest and refresh — is actually the most consequential thing we can do.”
If you have never meditated before, there are many sources to help you get started, including meditation apps and meditation retreats.
The New York Times has also published a guide to meditation with tips on how to achieve “greater equanimity, acceptance and joy,” as well as a guide to becoming more mindful, a practice that helps you remember to return to the present when you become distracted. The mindfulness guide is geared toward children but many of the tips are for people of all ages.
If possible, aim to meditate for at least 15 to 20 minutes a day to receive the most benefits, Mr. Olmsted added. Your mind may wander. This is perfectly natural, so don’t judge yourself for it. Instead, gently return your awareness to your breathing and come back to the present moment.
By doing this, you may eventually discover a calmness. Mr. Olmsted equated it to diving beneath crashing waves — the distractions on the surface of our mind — to explore the open, clear waters below.
Focus on What You Can Control
When the world feels unpredictable, we can create a sense of safety and security by following routines and focusing on the things that we do have some control over, said Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Conn.
Getting vaccinated and boosted, choosing to wear a mask — especially in public indoor settings — and washing your hands frequently are all healthy choices you can make to help reduce the possibility of infection.
But there are also other things you can do to ease your mind, she said.
First, take stock of the conversations that raise your anxiety levels. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try to gracefully change the topic or connect with someone else who can help you reframe things in a more positive way — someone who tends to be grounded and calm.
Some of her clients “are on a steady diet of news,” she added, which often increases their anxiety and leads to sleeplessness. She recommends avoiding the news right before bed and relying on just one or two trusted sources.
Speaking of bed, try to establish a consistent sleep schedule. Researchers have found that people report more anxiety when they are sleep deprived than when they are rested.
Scheduling activities will also add structure to your day. You might block off 30 minutes for exercise or an hour to read a book. Or perhaps you meet up with a friend, go for a walk or pick up an old hobby. The crucial part is to make time for it on your calendar.
“It just gives a sense of power and agency,” Dr. Greenberg said.
We can’t prevent the virus from mutating, she added, “but we can control what we do at 10 a.m.”
Christina Caron is a reporter for the Well section, covering mental health and the intersection of culture and health care. Previously, she was a parenting reporter, general assignment reporter and copy editor at The Times. @cdcaron
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