The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world and left countless people longing for a pre-pandemic way of life.
That desire is likely only further straining our mental health.
“Our brains really are very eager to get back to normal, to get back to January 2020,” Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of a book about adapting to “the new abnormal” of COVID-19, told USA TODAY.
But that’s simply not possible, Tsipursky said. Some losses in recent months are permanent. The dark cloud of coronavirus risk, meanwhile, will continue to linger — possibly for years.
“Normality” means different things for different people. Tragically, for hundreds of thousands of Americans, a pre-pandemic life would include a loved one who has died of COVID-19 this year.
For some Americans, a return to normal would mean restored health and financial stability. To others, it’s a world with concerts and gatherings, hugs and handshakes.
There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a better, more stable future, New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen told USA TODAY. But it’s important to realize that is likely a long-term fantasy, she said.
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A lingering threat
The fight against this highly contagious virus continues to define daily life: Cases are rising; the president is sick; Disneyland is still closed and the death toll is comparable to some of our most tragic wars.
That won’t always be the case. Tsipursky described a scenario in which increasingly effective vaccines and treatments will slowly reduce the spread of the virus over the course of years — a gradual process, rather than a quick return to what life was like in January 2020.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has hinted at a similar future, warning that approval of a vaccine would not be an “overnight event” that quickly returns the nation to a normal way of life. Even “getting back to a degree of normality which resembles where we were prior to COVID” might not arrive until late 2021, he said in early September.
As long as the virus continues to spread, previously normal activities such as going to a bar, attending a crowded concert or even hosting a family gathering over the holidays will continue to come with significant risks. And those risks aren’t only about your own health, Tsipursky stressed.
Because the virus preys on the vulnerable, this year a normal holiday gathering can “kill grandma,” Tsipursky said. And the virus’ path to such a vulnerable person can wind through their family’s everyday activities.
Accept the current reality
Months ago, experts recommended embracing grief amid the pandemic. It’s OK to mourn the loss of a job, the postponed or virtual graduation ceremony, the favorite restaurant that closed.
Tsipursky and Oettingen recommended similar thinking today: It’s important to accept that, for a time, this disease will continue to upend our daily lives.
It’s easy to become preoccupied with “if only,” Oettingen said — to fantasize about enjoying something lost in recent months or what life would be like if the pandemic was over.
But in many cases, those fantasies won’t be realized in the near future. And wishing it was different is futile, Oettingen said.
Adjust your expectations and fantasies
A more positive approach: Spend a quiet moment to carefully adjust thinking and expectations.
Oettingen, who has written extensively about transforming wishes for the future into actionable goals, recommends a method called “WOOP” — or wish, outcome, obstacle, plan.
The goal: Let go of fantasies that aren’t possible or healthy so that you can find new ones that you can achieve.
Get specific, she said. Think about exactly what you’re lacking amid the pandemic — What do you really want?
Those who miss face-to-face gatherings are likely longing for social connection. Those who miss traveling might be missing relaxation — or maybe adventure.
There are ways to achieve those things even amid a pandemic, Oettingen said. In many cases, it’s an opportunity to uncover something joyful that has been hiding in plain sight.
Social connection can be found in virtual visits with long-lost friends. Relaxation can be found in a quiet walk by a nearby river. Adventure might be found by finally kayaking down that river.
It‘s an individual process, Oettingen said: “Get creative in finding something that is feasible for you during the pandemic.”
But a happier life won’t happen without action, Oettingen said. So the next steps are critical: Figure out “what is it in you” that stands in the way of accomplishing this new goal, then make a plan to overcome it.
Letting go of your fantasies about a pre-pandemic life isn’t only good for your mental health — it’s good for your physical health, Tsipursky said.
“There are so many people who have not changed their thought patterns,” he said. As the months drag on, they feel as if living out their fantasies of a normal life are likely safe for them and their family — even when they’re not.
“Don’t act as if things are normal,” Tsipursky said. That can be a “tragic, tragic mistake.”
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