How to stay optimistic as the pandemic grinds ever onwards

‘Perspective thinking’, getting outdoors and having things to look forward to can all help

Finding a way to deal with our negative emotions can turn them ‘from a threat into an opportunity’. Photograph: iStock

With case numbers of Covid-19 rising due to the new Omicron variant, and fresh restrictions recently introduced, it can be difficult to stay optimistic.

But there is psychological research that is useful for helping people cope with situations like this, says Pete Lunn, founder and head of the ESRI's Behavioural Research Unit.

“One thing we can do this Christmas is focus on what we can do rather than what we can’t do. People can put some things in their diary that they really want to do and know they can do – for example, going with family to an outdoor beauty spot. Things you know won’t be cut off,” he says.

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On that same note, “give yourself a treat you know you can have this Christmas, like a fine bottle of wine”, adds Lunn.


While new restrictions mean we are “deprived of some things”, it’s important to “give yourself other things that you know you can.”

This is called “perspective thinking”, says Lunn. Having things to look forward to helps with your overall wellbeing.

So does getting outdoors.

“All research shows that your mental health is much better if you spend more time outdoors, even in this kind of weather.”

“Even when there isn’t a pandemic, over Christmas people can feel trapped indoors and get cabin fever. But the benefits of being outdoors are even more true this year. It’s a crucial thing.”

There is a “huge spectrum” of how worried people are by Covid-19 and the risks it poses to our health and society. Some people are very anxious, while others take it in their stride.

“People have to negotiate with others about what they can do and can’t,” says Lunn. “Some will worry more and others will worry less. But we are all in this pandemic and need to respect that diversity. Getting through Christmas and maintaining relationships with people is important.”

Conflict and tension

Similarly, professor of psychology at Trinity College Dublin Ian Robertson explains that there is "bound to be tension and conflict" over Christmas between people with different levels of anxiety about the pandemic.

“People have different perceptions of risk. That can lead to some people feeling hurt because someone doesn’t want to meet with them, or someone else can feel intruded upon and threatened by someone who insists on meeting if they’re not taking precautions,” he says.

In situations like this, Robertson recommends “having compassion for both yourself and for people with different views of the situation”.

“Imagine you’re in a drone somewhere above, looking down, and get a bit of detachment from the situation,” he says. “Try, when you’re speaking to the person, to explain how you feel. Make it about your emotions and not about something they’re doing wrong.”

“Nobody can argue with you explaining ‘I’m sorry, I’m anxious’, rather than ‘I’m sorry, I don’t think we should be meeting.’ The latter is potentially conflict inducing.”

Christmas can be a good period to “learn to really relax”, he adds.

People who are feeling anxious or stressed about the pandemic and other difficulties in their lives should “use this time to do the most valuable thing you could do, which could be to learn and practise a little bit of mindfulness,” says Robertson.

“I would recommend that everyone finds an app that suits them, or an online resource where they can learn.”

Just be

He gives the example of Waking Up, a guided meditation app, to use during this “dark, maybe somewhat disappointing time of year”.

“Try to do something you normally wouldn’t have the time to do. That will really benefit you through the whole year and help to build your resilience,” he says.

Learning to feel more in control of our emotions is an important skill to have for stressful periods in our lives, and it can be done in the same way as learning a new skill like a musical instrument or a language – “you have to practise it”.

“Give yourself that challenge, find some emotion that bothers you and that you sometimes feel at the mercy of. And challenge yourself to find a way to feel more in control of that emotion, whether it’s through meditation, or breathing apps, or physical exercise.”

Finding a way to deal with our negative emotions can turn them “from a threat into an opportunity”.

“It’s an opportunity to use your creativity to learn how to deal with yourself and just be.”