My heart, quite literally, sank when I heard the news of the new Covid-19 variant that has been discovered in South Africa, amid warnings that it could be the “most significant” strain of the virus yet.
There are fears that the B.1.1.529 variant may have the potential to evade immunity built up by vaccination or prior infection – with the health secretary, Sajid Javid, warning that it might be “more transmissible” than the Delta strain. As a result, Britain has added six new countries to the red list for travel: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.
I’m absolutely sure I wasn’t alone in feeling both concerned and emotionally crushed by the latest news – because, frankly, haven’t we all had enough? Enough of Covid, enough of lockdowns (the thought that we might be facing lockdown 4.0 in coming months, depending on how quickly this latest strain is able to be contained, is enough to make any of us cry actual tears). We’ve had enough of the worry of being infected and in passing that infection on; enough, too, of our collective grief over the friends and family members we’ve lost to the virus; enough of the fear that weighs heavy as a slab of cement in our stomachs every time we travel on a bus or train, or go to a crowded place.
Last night, I went to an event that was filled with people – all double-vaxxed, all lateral flow negative, many masked – but the first thing I spoke about with a stranger? How anxious we felt about being in that room. That’s because, let’s face it – the last 18 months of living through a pandemic have changed us all profoundly. We may not even realise it yet – we’re so busy “getting on” with life: work, family, relationships, the everyday minutiae of care-giving and cleaning and shopping and thinking ahead to the holiday season.
We haven’t had the chance to pause for breath and to recalibrate, to look back and begin to process what months of shielding or self-isolation have done to us, to lick our wounds and scars. We’re carrying them, every single one of us. But in classic British “stiff upper lip” fashion, we’re buttoning it all up and soldiering on.
Today is Black Friday, after all – and most of us will not be pondering existentially about how we feel about the virus – we simply haven’t got the time. Instead, we’ll likely be looking frantically at deals for toys and electronics and clothes and gifts and games to make sure Christmas 2021 (unlike the woeful Christmas of 2020) goes according to plan. But at the back of it all, underpinning everything we do? Fear – for those we love and for ourselves.
The long-term effects of living with fear are both nebulous and concerning. The potential effects of chronic fear on physical health, according to one expert, include headaches turning into migraines, muscle aches turning into fibromyalgia, body aches turning into chronic pain, and difficulty breathing turning into asthma.
There are similarly devastating potential effects on our emotional health and wellbeing, too: dissociation, an inability to have loving feelings, helplessness, anxiety or phobias, mood swings and obsessive-compulsive thoughts.
Fear can also affect our ability to learn new things, with Mary D Moller, a director of psychiatric services, explaining that the brain’s capacity to retrieve previous learning is dependent on “specific chemical states”. “Chemical alterations can distort perception of sensory information thus distorting storage,” she said.
When the brain is hyper-aroused – as so many of us might arguably be feeling, given our constant state of vigilance around the virus – “this distorts the storage of sensory input and the retrieval of information will be affected”.
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So, what to do with all this fear? How do we even begin to cope and to carry it? Some people swear by simple things such as mindfulness, others exercise and getting out amongst nature; many like to keep themselves as informed as possible – so they feel like they have some sort of control. Speaking personally, I fall into the latter camp – I don’t like what I don’t know. It helps me stay calm if I feel I’ve explored all the angles, have read the experts, am aware of the breaking news.
Perhaps a basic way to start would be to validate our own feelings, as we would with a friend or a colleague (this is a technique explored in the latest Dear Vix advice column). It’s OK to be afraid – it’s a completely natural response to the discovery of the new variant. It’s bigger than us, we can’t control it. That can be hard to deal with, but acceptance can bring us a long way.
I am also a huge believer in talking – simply airing a worry or concern works wonders, for me. The old adage of “a problem shared is a problem halved” exists for a reason. And no, we may not be able to “solve” or to “fix” it, but we can listen, and empathise, and understand. And if there’s anything we’ve learnt over the last 18 months, it’s how much we need each other.
So let’s start doing it: let’s #BeKind. We can’t control the virus, but we can control how we support each other. And while we don’t know what the outcome or ripple effect of this latest variant will be, as we march on through the gritty winter ahead, we’re going to need that support more than ever.