When new information is unpalatable, either because we recognize and dislike it, or because we have no idea how to respond to it, our first reaction tends to be denial. “Nope, didn’t see that, hear that, experience that.” Denial buys time to gather resources and absorb information more gradually. It is not meant to be a permanent resolution.
Many of us reacted that way when we first started hearing about the Omicron variant of Covid. The Delta surge had at least partially ebbed, vaccine boosters were available, and we had figured out our mask routines and the levels of risk we were comfortable with. The idea of reevaluating all that yet again in the face of surging case counts and faltering supply chains felt overwhelming. No one wanted to cancel travel plans or family gatherings.
Signs of denial
While denial says, “Nothing to see here,” there are often tell-tale signs when we veer away from new information. We might notice we feel angry or anxious without knowing why, or we are suddenly too busy to pause for even a moment, or we become absorbed in a book or video game or endlessly scrolling app. People with a history of trauma might dissociate by default, feeling spacey, numb, or disconnected from reality. What are your familiar pathways of distraction or denial?
When you become aware that you deflected something, simply acknowledge that. “Something was too much.” Kind attention allows everything to be just the way it is right now. If there are worried or critical voices, acknowledge them too.
Connect with the present
Check whether you are feeling triggered. Do you feel young, small, helpless, childlike? You cannot solve adult problems with a child’s resources, and it is not a child’s job. Stretch your adult body from head to toe and side to side. Take full breaths. Look around and listen to what is happening right now. Feel your sit-bones on the chair and your feet on the ground. Drink some water. What helps you reconnect with the present?
We deny new information when we fear not having the resources to handle it. When we add resources, including more time and support from other people, we increase our capacity to handle problems.
Take some time to sit quietly or go for a walk, and create a welcoming space for what was denied. Simply listen. Acknowledge whatever floats up, even if it does not seem directly relevant at first. Memories, images, sensations, and even apparent distractions can help restore the information. It might click into place, or remain stubbornly out of view, or gradually emerge from vagueness to clarity.
Make it a priority to get some rest. Under less pressure, the back of your mind makes connections and starts to work on possible solutions. You might wake up in the morning with some ideas on where to begin, rather than a blank feeling of overwhelm.
Remember your strengths
Remind yourself of complex problems you have successfully handled in the past. What tools and strengths did you use? One tool is asking for help. Who helped you, and how? What allies can you depend on for support? Once a problem is resolved, it can be hard to remember the chaotic lack of direction at the beginning. What helped you take those first steps toward better understanding?
As daunting as it is to enter the third year of this pandemic with the most contagious airborne variant yet, we have much more knowledge about Covid and skills at handling a pandemic than we did at the beginning. It is easy to forget the painful confusion of those first months when it was terrifying to touch surfaces at the grocery store, and there were no vaccines and boosters to lower risk of infection and severity of illness.
New information can bring shock and distress. As you reconnect, allow any messy emotions that arise. Grief or disappointment or terror might flow through you. When you give them room to move, they help you integrate information and take appropriate action. When you turn toward your distress with kindness, you receive some of the nourishment you need.
The Omicron surge dashed hopes that the pandemic was ebbing. Even though the surge itself is moving through relatively quickly, it promises more surges to come. It continues killing people and leaving people with Long Covid. It extends the strain on our medical practitioners, who have worked in dangerous, understaffed, under-supported, heartbreaking conditions for two years now, in addition to the strain they were already under before the pandemic. It extends the strain on each of us who have walked the tightrope between isolation and the need for connection in our best efforts to protect people who are still vulnerable, including people who are immuno-compromised and children under 5.
Return to yourself
Moment by moment, restore your kind attention to yourself and the world around you. When something is too much, step back and gather resources. Step forward again when you are ready. Confusion and distress are an expected part of adapting to unwanted events.
Like a school of fish moving in sync, we look to the people around us for guidance in how to respond to something new. As we each become more aware and responsive, we can collectively move toward decisions that value everyone’s health and well-being.
- In her book Being In My Body, Toni Rahman discusses trauma, dissociation, and how to return to ourselves.
- “You Are Not Entitled To Our Deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence” by Mia Mingus. “Getting vaccinated and boosted should be framed as part of our political commitment to interdependence, disability justice and solidarity.”
- “Pandemic fatigue is real, and you’re not alone” by Dr. Margaret Cary, MD, MPH, a senior health advisor for Oregon Health Authority.