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For many, pandemic-related anxiety had finally let up. The delta variant changed that.

“I just started to feel comfortable going out,” said a woman in Minnesota who lost her mother to the coronavirus.

Cathie Armstrong has not taken any chances during the pandemic. After losing her mother to the coronavirus in April 2020, Armstrong, 50, avoided going into stores and restaurants, terrified she could get or transmit Covid-19. She did not see anyone outside of her household, including her 25-year-old daughter, for more than a year.

When Armstrong got vaccinated in the spring, she felt elated to have protection from the virus, and slowly, her fears about it started to ease. In the past month, Armstrong, an author and literary agent in Rochester, Minnesota, worked up the courage to eat inside a restaurant for the first time and go back to her gym.

Cathie Armstrong, right, with her mother, Marion Welenz Hedrick, in July 2019 — the last time they saw each other before Hedrick died of Covid-19 nine months later.Courtesy Cathie Armstrong

But in recent days, the highly contagious delta variant has shaken Armstrong’s newfound confidence.

“I just started to feel comfortable going out, and I’m not going to lie, my anxiety spiked up again,” she said. Going to a restaurant again anytime soon, she said, “is not going to happen.”

With Covid-19 cases rising again, breakthrough infections being reported in a small number of vaccinated individuals and some indoor mask mandates being reinstated, many people are finding the brief reprieve they had from pandemic-induced anxiety has come to an end.

It’s created a feeling of whiplash from the relief they felt when vaccines became widely available several months ago. Now, the delta variant has some wondering if they should opt to home-school their children, delay their return to the office or reschedule the wedding they had already postponed.

Beneath this anxiety — and its unwelcome return — is uncertainty, said Lynn Bufka, senior director of practice transformation and quality at the American Psychological Association.

“We thought we had this figured out collectively, and now we’re realizing, ‘Oh, we don’t. There’s a lot that can still go wrong,’” Bufka said. “You’re in this place of, ‘I thought I had a breather from feeling anxious and now I’m back to questioning things.’ That can be emotionally exhausting.”

Still, experts say there is reason for hope, especially if more people get their Covid-19 shots. Those being hospitalized for Covid-19 are overwhelmingly unvaccinated, a testament to the “remarkably good” protection the vaccines offer, even against the delta variant, said Dr. Benjamin Singer, an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and an expert in pulmonary and critical care.

“They’re not perfect, so breakthrough cases will occur,” Singer said of the vaccines. But, he added, such cases rarely merit hospitalization or intensive care treatment, and even if an individual feels very unwell with a breakthrough case, it’s likely much better than how they would feel had they not been vaccinated.

“It’s impossible to know what that person’s health trajectory would have been if they weren’t vaccinated. Would they have ended up on a ventilator, or even died?” he said.

“It’s impossible to know what that person’s health trajectory would have been if they weren’t vaccinated. Would they have ended up on a ventilator, or even died?”

Singer said breakthrough cases are to be expected because of how transmissible the delta variant is. It is not clear yet how easily someone who gets a breakthrough case might transmit the virus to someone who is unvaccinated.

Regardless, the bottom line is real-world evidence indicates Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective in preventing severe illness with the delta variant, Singer said. For people living in areas with high local transmission of the virus who are feeling nervous, Singer encouraged mask-wearing indoors, regardless of vaccination status.

How to regain your calm

For anyone finding themselves so worried about the delta variant that it is causing them significant anxiety, Bufka suggested starting with the basics of self-care: making sure you are getting enough sleep, eating well and maintaining important social connections.

“Use what you’ve learned during this period of the pandemic to make decisions that are right for you,” she said. “Maybe what you need most in dealing with the stressors you face is to make sure you’re connected to your best friend.”

She also recommended stepping away from the news and to “not scroll through everything that shows up, go down every single rabbit hole.” Only read what directly affects you or people you love, she said, not necessarily bad headlines from everywhere in the country or world.

For Armstrong, continuing to wear masks has helped her anxiety, even if other people around her are not doing the same. If she must go into stores, she does so as quickly as possible, buying only what she needs before leaving.

While she waits out this new wave of the pandemic, she is only spending time with people who are vaccinated against Covid-19. That has meant turning down invitations from friends or family members who are not vaccinated.

“I am very concerned that I could get it and have a mild case, and pass it on to someone else,” she said. “I feel like I’m being neurotic, but we’ve lost a lot of people.”