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Bracing for BA.2: Is Post-Pandemic Growth Possible?

4 ways to cope with the next wave and spark post-pandemic growth.

Key points

  • The new BA.2 variant brings more uncertainty.
  • Growth comes from actively using coping techniques, and developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing life.
  • Coping strategies to spark post-pandemic growth target uncertainty, grief, values and spirituality.
Photo by Ilyuza Mingazova on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Ilyuza Mingazova on Unsplash

by Alise Conner, Ph.D., and Kristin J. Conner, Ph.D.

We’ve seen the headlines and expert predictions. The fourth wave is coming. In many parts of the world, it’s already here.

BA.2 is the new subvariant of COVID-19, and assuming pandemic history repeats itself, will soon spike case numbers across the U.S. BA.2 is a mutation of the Omicron variant, so it’s not entirely novel. It seems to be more contagious than previous variants, but not more severe. Also, the current vaccines are still helpful, and previously infected people may have some protection against BA.2.

We’ve been here before, and yet we’ve never been here before. Even if we’re too tired to admit it, this is another challenging pandemic moment. Or is it?

After all this time, we’re still living under a cloud of prolonged uncertainty. We desperately want the pandemic to be over, and we're getting closer. But BA.2 says, not today.

Continuous (Pandemic) Traumatic Stress

The pandemic is a trauma shared across the globe. Like when a traumatic event hits a family and affects each sibling differently, we’re in it together but we’re also coping on our own. This doesn’t mean that everyone is experiencing a trauma reaction. Every person, state, and country is having their own experience of COVID-19, including loss and disruption caused by sickness and death, economic fear and hardship, racism and social inequities, punishing social isolation, and so much unknown.

In this way, the pandemic is made up of connected and repeated miseries and upheavals, causing what psychologists call continuous traumatic stress or CTS.

We experience CTS when we live in ongoing, high-threat conditions. CTS is not a clinical diagnosis, but a stressful state in which we’re existing. If you’ve lived with community violence, the constant vigilance and anticipatory anxiety might be familiar. For many people, these feelings are new.

Photo by Vladyslav Tobolenko on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Vladyslav Tobolenko on Unsplash

And, as if these tragic experiences weren’t enough, there’s delayed grief tied to each of them. As human beings, we need to grieve what we lose in order to move forward in productive and healthy ways. We haven’t had the time to do that, though, because with each pandemic lull, we’ve soon been hit with another wave. And a new set of losses.

We’ve accumulated grief, on top of grief, on top of grief.

We aren’t built to suffer endlessly. As you might expect, it can damage our minds, bodies, and spirits. At the same time, researchers think that coping with traumatic experiences can actually spark personal growth.

Post-Traumatic and Post-Pandemic Growth

Most people experience traumatic events in their lives. While some have understandable setbacks following trauma, psychologists have noticed that many people show astonishing resilience and go on to thrive. This is called post-traumatic growth.

Recent studies have already identified positive outcomes tied to COVID-19:

Photo by qinghill on Unsplash
Source: Photo by qinghill on Unsplash

To experience this growth, simply coming out on the other side of pandemic lows is not enough. Post-traumatic growth comes from using coping techniques to get through the hard times, and developing new ways of thinking about and experiencing our lives.

If our goal is simply to survive this next wave and the pandemic, then survival is all we’ll get out of it. Survival is definitely something we want, but we can get more of a return on our physical and emotional investment. We can experience post-pandemic growth, and not just for the economy.

We’re not post-pandemic yet, but we can use what we know about post-traumatic growth to guide how we cope with the next wave.

4 strategies to cope with BA.2 and spark post-pandemic growth

We’re tired and tapped out. A new strain is looming, again. In some ways, we’ve let our guards down. But we can’t let our guards down with how we cope.

1. Lean into uncertainty. We’re often told to embrace uncertainty. To accept what we can’t control. Yes, that’s important and can sometimes help. But accepting uncertainty is passively allowing it to come to us. Tolerating or accepting uncertainty doesn’t actually spark healing or growth.

Instead, challenge yourself to move towards uncertainty. Let go of trying to predict the future. Stop guessing at scary things that could happen, but aren’t happening now.

And then, actively feel and seek out the sensations of uncertainty, on purpose. Give uncertainty a big hug.

Ask yourself:

  • Where do I feel uncertainty in my body? In my chest, stomach, shoulders, jaw?

  • What does it feel like? Is it pressure, tingling, or tightness?

  • Can I make it stronger or more intense? What happens when I try?

We know this might sound bizarre. Why would I try to feel something unpleasant?

  1. Uncertainty is an appropriate feeling right now.

  2. Uncertainty doesn’t actually hurt us. Our uncomfortable relationship with it, does.

It’s counterintuitive, but it works.

2. Let yourself grieve, everything. Grief is heavy, which is why we avoid it. But if we don’t actually feel our grief, we can’t become lighter again.

Take some time alone to sit quietly with all that we’ve lost. We’ve lost loved ones, travel, maskless faces, the ability to safely plan ahead, and so many other parts of our life. It sucks, to say the least.

Let yourself feel whatever you really feel. You might be sad, mad, bitter, scared, regretful, or all of the above. Every feeling makes sense. Say them out loud. Tell someone, “I’m mad that ______.”

3. Shore up your values and/or spirituality. What’s important to you in life? Independence, creativity, justice, health? Our values give us purpose and strength, and we can access them at any time. In the face of so much trauma, uncertainty, and grief, we can forget what’s already inside of us.

Think of your top three values. Write them down. Now pick one, and imagine one small way that you can live out that value today. If you value community, for example, you could find three things around your house to donate.

Spirituality can mean different things, such as our values, sense of meaning in life, or relationship with a higher power. Spirituality can help us cope with bad times, and bad times can reconnect us with our spirituality. Do one small thing today that connects you with yours.

4. Build your inner sense of security. To do this, think of a place or memory that makes you feel safe and calm. It could be a place you loved as a kid, your favorite relative’s house, a familiar park bench, holding someone’s hand, or anywhere that makes you feel secure.

As you think about this place, call up your five senses. What do you see? What do you hear? Smell? Feel? Taste? Fully be there for a few minutes.

You have the power to go there whenever you want to.

These strategies take time and practice. If we’ve learned anything over the past two years, though, it’s that we can cope with a lot.

Kristin J. Conner, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at the California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University, Los Angeles. She is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in California.


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