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Coping with COVID-19 uncertainty—again

Moving into the academic year with a pandemic still looming

by Jen Heemstra, special to C&EN
October 10, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 37


Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

Hope may have been the prevailing emotion for many people only a few months ago, but much of that hope has now mutated to anxiety, frustration, or despair as a result of the newest COVID-19 surge. The last academic year brought unprecedented challenges as we navigated online teaching and lab closures caused by the pandemic. As summer began in the US, many of us believed that those experiences might be behind us. Vaccines were becoming more widely available in the US, and COVID-19 cases started to drop worldwide. In academia, we dared to think about having a “normal” fall semester.

Then the highly contagious Delta variant emerged, and cases began to spike again. As students and faculty were returning to campus this fall, policies were changing daily as colleges and universities grappled with the potential of campus-wide outbreaks. For many, it started to feel as if we were right back where we had been a year ago.

This sudden trajectory reversal brings with it a huge feeling of uncertainty. Faculty are continually confronted with the possibility of having to move our classes back online or dramatically alter how we teach in person. Graduate students and postdocs worry that lab closures or density restrictions could slow their research. Undergraduates living on campus know that their ability to interact with their fellow students could be dramatically curtailed any day. Moreover, for anyone who is a parent, the semiregular COVID-19 notification emails from our schools and childcare facilities serve as a reminder that our families could be forced into a multiday quarantine at a moment’s notice. This is all on top of the very real threat to our health and that of our loved ones.

Uncertainty is always a part of our lives, regardless of whether we are in the midst of a global pandemic. However, the uncertainty is magnified in very real ways by the current situation. The American Psychological Association offers several recommendations for how to cope with uncertainty. Below I elaborate on a few that could be particularly helpful as we navigate the pandemic’s impact on our academic lives.

Be kind to yourself and know you are not alone. Just as we would be kind to a friend or family member who was struggling during a difficult situation, we can be kind and forgiving to ourselves. Maybe next week’s lecture won’t be the best you’ve ever delivered, or that manuscript review will be submitted a few days later than planned. That’s OK. Know that you are doing your best and that you are surrounded by many other people who are feeling almost the same way.

Maintain your support network. Talking with friends is a helpful reminder that you’re not alone in the challenges and uncertainties that you face. If you are back on campus, meet up with a colleague for lunch, coffee, or an outdoor stroll. Share your feelings and validate each other’s struggles and worries. You can also talk about how you are coping on a practical level. One of my recent online social hours with friends involved a discussion of which portable microphones work best while wearing a mask.

Create certainty where you can. Amid uncertainty, we all seek out things that we can control. The key is to lean on healthy, rather than harmful, habits. This may mean making a goal to greet three people as you walk to your office in the morning or starting your day with 5 min of meditation. We can also develop a plan to deal with situations that could potentially cause you anxiety. For example, if you are teaching a class in person, create a rough outline of what it would look like if you had to suddenly move your class online. Hopefully you won’t need it, but being prepared with an action plan can reduce the stress of an uncertain future.

Jen Heemstra is a professor of chemistry at Emory University who shares advice on Twitter at @jenheemstra. Find all her columns for C&EN and ask her questions at

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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