opinion

'Catching COVID in 2022 feels inevitable. It’s okay to be terrified.'

For two years I didn't really know anyone with COVID. 

Fast-forward to early 2022 and every second person I know is currently battling the virus or out the other side. Living in the middle of Sydney, as my state records numbers in the tens of thousands every day, it feels like a matter of time before I join them. 

Even as a healthy 30-year-old woman with no underlying health conditions, that fact terrifies me.

Watch: 5 hacks that help with anxiety. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

While there's every chance I will experience a mild version of the virus given I am double vaccinated, I know that's not guaranteed. But there's no getting around the fact that living in Sydney right now is like a game of dodgem. My Service NSW app pings on the daily with casual contact alerts, and with every new notification I find myself holding my breath. 

Even though New South Wales is currently open, I am living like it's not. I have ventured out for a meal or two, but only in an outdoor setting where I can eyeball that there is an excessive amount of space between my table and others. 

Because even though my friends who've caught it tell me they're fine - and even though I am being told that catching the virus in 2022 is inevitable given the current spread - I am doing everything in my power to avoid it. 

Reigning in the feelings of fear and hopelessness.

Those manning our hospitals have told us they're struggling with rising numbers and benched staff and we should be doing everything in our power to stymie the spread, so I am staying home for them. But I am also staying home out of fear. 

It's a fear that's full of the flashing images of mass graves, overflowing hospitals and ventilators. Because that's been the picture that's been painted for us these past two years. That's been the reality for our overseas neighbours who've been faced with the kind of case numbers we're seeing in Australia currently.  

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As Ros Ben-Moshe, adjunct lecturer at the School of Public Health and Psychology at La Trobe University told me, "when you have something that you've been building up all of these associations about over the years, you have this backlog of fear and anxiety and that [can be] debilitating."

"But [in our current reality] the fear of what it is in most cases appears to be worse than the actual reality," she added.

(Disclaimer: for some, that fear is still the reality, as Alice Rumble shared with Mamamia last week.)

But the truth is, we're living in a different world to 2020, and as we grapple with this new COVID-reality it's important to keep the facts front and centre. 

The vast majority of Australian adults are double vaccinated and therefore have a high level of protection against death and hospitalisation, and Omicron — the current dominant variant — has been proven to be less deadly. Even though our hospitals are filling up with more COVID patients right now, the proportion of critically ill when compared to past waves is much, much lower. This is all good news. It's a less dire outlook than we've had in the past.

As Ben-Moshe, who is also the author of Laughing at cancer - How to heal with love, laughter and mindfulness will tell you, "worrying about what is out of your control is futile and drains energy." 

You can be aware of the dangers and smart with your choices, but as we tackle this new normal Ben-Moshe advises we try to feed our positive mindset rather than our negative one.

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"Because you can't be in two mindsets at the same time," she told me. 

"The problem with COVID and all the anxiety and fear, is that most people's stress hormones are really overactive. When we start to put a bit of a break [in there], by focusing on things that go well and embracing those things that are even mildly beneficial to our day, you actually start to feed into your dopamine and into your serotonin, which is our body's anti-depressant. So these are really important things to do regularly. 

"We can sort of, in our own way, regulate positive emotion by feeding into our own sense of self more."

Ben-Moshe is talking about things like being kind to others, adopting an attitude of self-compassion, pretending you're giving advice to a friend in the same situation and focusing on the small victories and the micro-moments of joy. 

"It's this 'contagion of gratitude' that slowly unfolds and feeds into that sense of wellbeing and makes you more resilient. That's the bottom line," she told me. 

In an interview with our daily news podcast, The Quicky, registered psychologist and director of the Australian Association of Psychologists Dr Betty Chetcuti added, "when you stay focused on the conversation, it's going to increase a sense of anxiety. And whilst we want to be informed about the situation we also don't want to saturate ourselves so it's the only thing we're looking at... otherwise that will just maintain our state of anxiety and fear."

Given it's a health pandemic, Dr Chetcuti also suggests focusing on our own health.

"[Getting] really good sleep. Good quality unprocessed food, exercise and doing something that's purposeful so that our mind is focused on things that we enjoy. [Because] stress and anxiety is one of the most negative impacts on our immunity," she said. 

Listen: In 2022, can we come to terms with COVID-19? Post continues after podcast.

It's okay to feel terrified. 

It's hard to shake this feeling that the virus is closing in. 

But it's important to remember that for most, contracting the virus in 2022 is different to previous years.

It's also important to remember that what we're experiencing is not normal, even though it feels like this is going to be our reality forever. 

Ben-Mosche encourages us to still have goals and big plans and resolutions that are free from the restraints virus-life brings. 

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Your future can still be full of wedding-planning and overseas holidays and festival-jumping. Your new year plans can still involve mapping out those stepping stones, Ben-Moshe just suggests we also plan in a fallback. 

"In these times, perhaps just have a bit more of a realistic attitude. Perhaps that's thinking, 'If I can't go to Burma, I'm going to go to Byron!' I just think we have to temper our expectations because the higher our expectations the further we will fall if they don't come to plan."

For me, planning for the future is exciting and gives me structure that helps to abate feelings of fear. Planning just looks a little different for now — but hey, even when the virus doesn't dictate our lives, life will throw us curveballs. Not all plans will go to plan. 

This will be a distant memory that we tell our grandchildren about one day. Hopefully while they're living in a world where true flexible working, more robust health systems and a more resilient and respectful global community are the post-pandemic lessons they are reaping the benefits from. 

You can keep up to date with Gemma Bath's articles here, or follow her on Instagram,  @gembath.

Feature image: Getty/Mamamia.

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