“So, what do you want to do when the ‘bad germs’ go away?”
That’s not a question I would have even considered asking my 6-year-old son at the onset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been unthinkable — borderline cruel — when we were stuck in our 700-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn, the near-constant sound of sirens piercing the city skyline. To think about a future that was painfully unattainable, and at a time when we were more focused on adjusting to at-home e-learning and making sure dad, an essential worker at an Amazon fulfillment facility, didn’t unknowingly bring the virus home, would have been more harmful than helpful.
Yet now that we’re nearing the one-year mark of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the United States, and we’ve settled into a routine that keeps us going, my family of four is thinking about the future. We have a running list of all the places we want to go, and the people we want to see, when things go back to “normal” — whatever that means.
Our plans, which include a two-week trip to Disney World and a road trip to see my children’s recently vaccinated great grandparents, do not have dates. While some Americans have traveled during the pandemic, we don't feel comfortable putting ourselves and our community at risk, and we do not know when that feeling will change.
We do know, however, that our running list of “bad-germ–free fun,” and the permission it has given us to think about the future is helping us cut through the Groundhog’s Day-like feeling of pandemic life. We’re slowly, but surely, feeling more hopeful, more optimistic, and our family’s overall mental and emotional health is better for it.
Making plans may actually support mental health
“There aren’t a lot of things you can change,” Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said. “You can’t make the virus go away; you can’t get the vaccine quicker; you can’t make your work environment substantially different. You can’t change a lot of these things, but you can change what you look forward to. You can find new ways to make the day-to-day feel somewhat different, and you can find ways to have hope. Otherwise, you’re just waking up every day and every day is the same.”
One 2014 study published in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience found a strong connection between an uncertain future and feelings of anxiety. Another study, published in Behaviour Research and Therapy, found that uncertainty can make us feel powerless, make us feel stressed and leave us feeling upset. So by making plans for the future, even when it’s impossible to know, for certain, what the future will hold, you can help mitigate those feelings of stress, powerlessness and overwhelm.
This is also known as “proactive coping" — when a person engages in a plan that helps to reduce the likelihood of feeling future stress. One recent study of out of North Carolina State University, found that proactive coping, when combined with frequent mindfulness practices, can help promote feelings of calmness. A Cornell University study found that even the anticipation of a trip can increase a person’s overall happiness.
“Having something to look forward to can help a person feel better, and serves as a way to shake things up a little,” Gold explained. “It can give someone hope to consider what they miss, what they could do, what they could do with someone else, and where they want to go if and when they can go safely. It can be helpful to consider what would be fun, and even what that fun will look like.”
Nicole Hensley, 40, from East Wenatchee, Washington, avoided making plans for the first six months of the pandemic. “It got to the point where we were so exhausted from the disappointment of not being able to do the things we had been looking forward to doing, that we just gave up,” she said. But lately, she — along with her fiancé and 6-year-old daughter — has decided to think about and make plans for the future. After their recent engagement, Hensley and her partner have started to envision their wedding, and considering when they could feasibly and safely invite their friends and family members to the ceremony of their dreams.
“As we are approaching a year of quarantine, our tanks are nearing empty,” she explains. “Having a big celebration to look forward to, one that requires time and planning, is filling our tanks just enough to keep us going. It is giving us a small sense of normalcy in an otherwise chaotic and unknown maelstrom. We miss normal. We are so excited to experience it again in the future!”
Proactive coping won't work for everyone
It is important to note that making future plans with no concrete dates — or even some concert dates that may very well be pushed back or canceled — is not going to be beneficial for everyone. Gold is quick to remind people that what the country is enduring is an ongoing period of trauma — a time where there has been massive loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of housing and food security, and the loss of normalcy — and not everyone reacts to and navigates trauma in the same way.
“If you’ve already had a series of perpetual disappointments around planning and trips and things, I think (making future plans right now) is something that could be really hard,” Gold says. “If you already had to move a wedding or another really large life event, I could imagine something like this could also be difficult and could compound it.”
Gold urged people to listen to their bodies when they’re thinking about the future.
“If you start to spiral, and you immediately have 45 questions about what that vacation would look like, you probably shouldn’t make plans,” she explains. “If the idea of a vacation is even mentioned and you begin to feel nauseous, or your heart starts to beat really fast, or you get a shortness of breath — anything like that, even if it’s temporary, is a sign you should consider whether or not making future plans is actually comforting.”
The past year has been riddled with painful uncertainty, so for now, my little family of four is going to take comfort in the fact that while there’s still so much about the future we don’t know, there will be no question about what we plan to do once those “bad germs” disappear. We have our list.