Step one: Don’t catastrophize.
Omicron season is upon us. Along with gift guides and end-of-year roundups of the year's best whatever listicles, there's a fresh rash of "how to prepare for the inevitability of getting COVID" articles spamming up my feed. While I appreciate the practical advice, the onslaught of sick-bed preparation manuals feels crazy-making. I have a thermometer. What I really need to know is how to deal with the existential anxiety I will inevitably experience if I get laid up with COVID. Is there a way to get emotionally prepared for the possibility of getting sick?
First of all, it feels important to say that being emotionally prepared does not equate to catastrophizing. “It is a really fine line between emotionally preparing to get sick and emotionally expecting to get sick,” Michael Wusik, a Tampa-based clinical psychologist, tells me. In other words, proactively planning out how you might respond to a difficult situation — in this case, catching COVID — is not the same as assuming that the worst possible thing that can happen will happen.
“It is really important to make sure we are not expecting to get sick,” Wusik emphasizes. It may feel like expecting to catch COVID is just hard-nosed realism, but it’s not. The truth is that even in the bleakest moments of the pandemic, at any given moment there have been more people in America who don’t have COVID than people who do. Being paranoid won’t keep you safe, and actually, Wusik says that people who expect to get sick often tend to be more risk taking because they start to see COVID infection as inevitable.
This is all to say that your mindset is important. In fact, having an emotional COVID preparedness plan starts with using your imagination. “Imaginal exposure is a great place to start,” Wusik says. Imaginal exposure is a psychological technique that therapists use to help clients deal with fear by imagining how they might respond to difficult situations. In the case of COVID, that means imagining what a day would be like if you are sick, he adds.
You can start by imagining the test results all the way through to your recovery. Think of it as a less woo guided meditation that will help you figure out what emotional and logistical resources you might need if you get sick. Wusik says that as you imagine a day in your sick life, you should ask yourself some questions about what you might need to be comfortable and who you might need to support you if you were sick. Knowing these things when you’re well can help you gather what you will need to feel emotionally better the way you stock up on ibuprofen when you know you might have aches.
“This is a great way to gauge your reaction to things as well as to notice blindspots,” says Wusik, “especially if you talk this out with someone else.” And, he says, make lists. “Lists of support are great,” says Wusik. You can start by getting set up with key doctors — primary care, psychologist — and then move on to making a "self-soothing" list of things you'd like — video games, movies, soft blankets, he suggests. Okay, so, I don’t know about you, but the idea of having a pre-made care package tailored to my own specific needs sounds pretty soothing on its own.
Another thing to keep in mind is that while you may not have had COVID before, you have inevitably weathered many difficult things and you probably already have some important emotional coping skills. Wusik tells me that the things he recommends doing to prepare for potential illness are very similar to the recommendations he makes for people going to visit stressful family members over the holidays. It feels fair to say that most of us have imagined how to handle that scenario, so none of us are starting with a blank slate.
One of the things that I, personally, hate most about getting sick is that it feels so existential. I’m not really used to having a lot of extra time on my hands, so I end up overthinking my whole life. Apparently, that’s perfectly natural. “There is way way way more free time that you'd think if you are stuck doing nothing for a few days,” Wusik says. Okay, but what do you do with all that free time without getting cabin fever?
Well, you have two options, neither of which is mutually exclusive. “Come up with some projects,” he suggests. “Do a puzzle. Learn to draw. Finally beat the first Mario Brothers.” In other words: Stay entertained. Or, if you want to, you can also use that free time to do some personal reflection. “The time can be valuable,” says Wusik. “Take a pen and paper and dive into your existential crisis and see if you can write your way through it.” You don’t have to spend all your PTO deep in thought, but a little journaling might help you get some perspective.
One of the most important things to remember is that there’s no shame in getting sick, says Wusik. Capitalism teaches us that we are only valuable when we’re being productive, but it’s just not true. And while you may have to be physically alone in quarantine, you don’t have to be lonely. One of the most beautiful things we’ve seen emerge during the most recent American tragedies is the massive mobilization of mutual aid. If you don’t feel like you have the most supportive family or friends, well, you’re not alone, and you don’t need to be scared to tap into the networks of people willing to pitch in during your time of need. “Be okay asking for help,” says Wusik.