Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Why Omicron Makes You Feel Numb Instead of Terrified

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By Adam Grant

Dr. Grant is an organizational psychologist at Wharton, the author of “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” and the host of the TED podcast “WorkLife.”

It could have been a scene straight out of an apocalyptic horror movie. When the World Health Organization declared the Omicron variant of the coronavirus a “variant of concern” in late November, borders closed, markets tumbled and warnings spread about how this new threat could ravage the world’s population.

And then … many of us went right back to whatever we were doing. In a poll of Americans conducted from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, almost all — 94 percent — had heard of Omicron. Despite questions that remain unanswered about Omicron’s risks and whether it can evade vaccines, only 23 percent said they were likely to cancel their holiday plans, and 28 percent said they were likely to stop gathering with others outside their households.

It’s a stark difference from when the pandemic first started. Back then, as we learned of this new highly contagious and deadly disease with no vaccine or treatment, many of us stocked up on food and toilet paper, started wiping down our groceries and went into lockdown, only venturing out with protective gear.

But many people aren’t so afraid of Covid-19 anymore, complicating public health authorities’ efforts to slow Omicron’s spread. We’ve all seen this horror movie before, and when you’ve watched the killer jump out brandishing a weapon 10 times — even when you’ve watched him kill — it just doesn’t freak you out the same way. The same rerun has been playing for 21 months. We’re living through a phenomenon that risk experts might call a “boring apocalypse.”

The seemingly constant flow of emergency alerts has dulled many people’s fear response to this pandemic, leading them to let down their guard, relax their restrictions or masking habits, or even refuse potentially lifesaving vaccines. Why? We’ve basically all been through one of the best available therapies for extinguishing extreme fear.

If you have a fear of spiders, the mere sight of a bug with eight legs activates your amygdala — a vital part of your brain’s threat detection system. The amygdala acts as a safety siren that immediately drowns out all the other noise in your head and propels you to take rapid protective action: fight, flight or freeze.

When that response is overactive — especially if you have a phobia — psychologists often recommend exposure therapy. The goal is to make you so familiar with the source of your fear that it no longer seems like a threat. Your amygdala takes a nap and your prefrontal cortex takes over, allowing you to think rationally about whether that daddy longlegs in the bathtub is really a danger.

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