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If you're finding this stage of the pandemic especially confusing, you're not alone

DrAfter123/Getty Images

Updated February 15, 2022 at 5:48 PM ET

The omicron surge is declining fast in the U.S. One state after another is lifting their mask mandates.

But more than 175,000 people are still catching the virus, and more than 2,200 people are still dying from COVID-19, every day. And federal officials say it's too soon to loosen restrictions.

Is your head spinning? Are you feeling anxious?

It's not surprising, according to psychologists, sociologists and medical anthropologists.

"It's very confusing," says Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. "You wake up in the morning and and you wonder: 'Maybe we are over it and no one told me.' Or maybe: 'It's terrible and I should not do my shopping in person.' "

And that, Fishbach says, leaves many people struggling to know: Should I keep wearing my mask? When can I safely take it off? Should I go to a party, or skip it to stay safe? And maybe even feeling more distressed than ever.

"This kind of situation makes people feel very uncomfortable," she says.

Part of the problem is the conflicting, ever-changing advice people are hearing from different political leaders.

"The sense that you're standing on shifting sands does put you in an awkward situation about: 'What do I do? And, what don't I do? And what they told me yesterday may be different from what they're telling me today," says Monica Shoch-Spana, a medical anthropologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Not quite endemic

The confusion is compounded by the fact that a pandemic is unlike other traumatic events, such as natural disasters, in important ways, Shoch-Spana says. There are no obvious cues people can judge for ourselves to assess the risk.

"Think of a massive hurricane in the Gulf Coast. There's the storm surge, there's winds blowing, the battering of a glass window. And then as things are getting better you can see the debris getting picked up," Shoch-Spana says. "And so the invisibility of the pathogen is a problem."

That leaves people to figure things out for themselves, without much clear guidance, seemingly indefinitely.

"That's what makes this situation unique. With hurricanes and natural disasters, there's a beginning, a middle and an end," said C. Vaile Wright of the American Psychological Association. "This still has no end."

Many experts are predicting the pandemic may be on the way to becoming endemic, meaning COVID cases will typically be less severe, and the disease's impact on society will be more predictable and hopefully far less disruptive to daily life.

But the virus is still far from becoming endemic yet. And even when and if it does, it won't be gone. It'll still be infecting, sickening and killing people. So people will still have to navigate day-to-day decisions about risk. That could easily vary over time, and in different seasons, and depending on your own underlying immunity and health status.

Plus, of course, there's the ongoing threat of new variants.

"I think of the pandemic at this point kind of like an old horror movie where you keep thinking that your nemesis, the evil person chasing you, is dead. And they always seem to come back and be there right with you," says Jay Van Bavel, a psychologist at New York University.

"And that's what's happened with these mutations. Every time we think we're moving into normal life, again there's a setback," Van Bavel says.

Coping with lurking fears

But there are strategies people can use to cope, the experts say.

First of all, take a calm look at your own situation. People who are at greater risk because of factors such as their age or underlying health conditions will need to continue to take more precautions. And the risk will vary depending on variables such as how much the virus is still spreading where you live and the vaccination rate there.

And then, as you continue to try to make good decisions about your risk, one strategy is to do everything possible to get a good night's sleep, exercise regularly and eat a healthy diet, since all those things help regulate emotions.

"When we're more emotionally regulated, then we can be better problem-solvers and figure out: 'How do I navigate a world that is so unpredictable and uncertain right now?" Wright says.

Another tactic is to try to avoid counterproductive behaviors that people often turn to to try alleviate anxiety, such as incessantly reading news stories looking for solid answers that just aren't there, Wright says.

And instead of focusing on the uncertainty, focus on the things can be controlled, like your own behavior.

And remember how much we've already learned about the virus, says Fishbach.

"Look back at the time when you were afraid to touch your mail, or breath in at the presence of other people, to how comfortable you are now with other people, with going to public places, living your lives," says Fishbach.

"We are not really where we we hope to be, but we are far from where we we started," she says.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.