Published: 2 July 2021. Written by: Gershon Portnoi.
Whether it’s holidays, parties or weddings, we all love to plan ahead but the ever-changing pandemic rules are making that harder than ever. Here’s how to cope with the uncertainty and learn to stay in the moment.
Remember that festival you’d dreamed of attending this summer? Or that longed-for Mediterranean beach holiday you rebooked from last year? Perhaps a spring wedding that was postponed last-minute and rescheduled? They’re possibly all going ahead this summer – but then again, maybe not. As we wait for the government to ease the final set of lockdown restrictions and cling on to the hope for a return to aspects of our pre-pandemic lives, one certainty we have is, conversely, our collective uncertainty of what’s to come.
With any number of virus variants set to test our vaccines – not to mention our patience – and possibly curb our ability to travel abroad or, even worse, our freedom to socialise, it’s becoming increasingly hard to plan ahead.
The virus has already put paid to numerous future plans, leaving many of us feeling frustrated. Research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that our ability to cope with the stress of the pandemic has worsened, with 64% of UK adults saying they were coping well in February of this year, down from 73% last April.
For those who usually live life permanently filling up their weekends and sending calendar invites to their friends and family, this uncertainty has been a hard pill to swallow. But where does the need to plan come from, and what can we do to help us not plan ahead in the coming months?
Why do we ‘need’ to plan?
Let’s deal with the ‘why’ before we get to the ‘what’ – psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Cirillo says planning is all about staying in the driver’s seat. ‘From a psychological point of view, most planning is driven by a need for control and stability, which we like as human beings,’ she says.
‘We all need frameworks and structures or the world would be in complete chaos. Most people feel more in control when their diary is planned, and a lot of people get overwhelmed if they haven’t planned very well.’
For the more anxious among us, planning is a key coping mechanism against the perceived threat of uncertainty, which has never felt more acute than over the past 18 months.
‘Some people innately have higher levels of anxiety and will need planning, and will struggle more when things aren’t planned,’ says Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
‘We’ve had a lot of control stripped away from us, so for those who do like to plan, you can’t plan or have the same level of autonomy in the pandemic that you would have had pre-pandemic. So the main things we’re left with are stress, anxiety and a lot of frustration.
‘There are no rates or measures for frustration and anger which I find really interesting, because that’s [often] what comes to me in my clinic,’ explains Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘People say, “I was anxious at the beginning, but I learned how to Zoom and home school, but now I’ve got frustration.” No one seems to be talking about that yet. The World Health Organization has done studies to show increased anxiety and stress but not frustration and anger – but that will come.’
While a word like ‘frustration’ doesn’t feel as clinical as ones such as ‘anxiety’ or ‘depression’, Dr Quinn-Cirillo believes the F-word is the ticking time bomb likely to affect many of us as we learn to live with unprecedented uncertainty.
‘Frustration is almost the untold story of the pandemic, which really does affect wellbeing,’ she explains. ‘If you’re frustrated and angry, your blood pressure increases and your cortisol levels are all out of whack. It’s not good for your sleep, your immune system and your overall wellbeing.’
None of which sounds like much fun, so let’s move swiftly on to the ‘what we can do’ part. The good news is that there are many tried-and-tested ways for us to combat the frustration and anger of our inability to plan ahead.
Validate each other
The first thing we can do is acknowledge and accept how difficult this situation is for us, advises Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘We need to tell people that emotions are normal and automatic, and so are the thoughts that sometimes come with them or precede them. It’s normalising it so it’s okay to say you’re frustrated or anxious.’
But it’s not just self-acknowledgement – we also need to validate each other to really help ease our frustrations, according to Dr Quinn-Cirillo, who says trying to ease someone’s concerns with a ‘Please don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ can have the opposite effect, and make them feel worse. Far better to say ‘I see you’re feeling really angry,’ as it validates their feelings and may have the physiological result of reducing their blood pressure and stress levels.
Take time out
Equally important is managing our own frustrations over losing control by giving ourselves breaks when we’re feeling overwhelmed.
‘It’s helpful if you can begin to notice when your mind is fast forwarding to the future,’ says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘When we’re sailing with uncertainty, the number one thing is to have targeted time out for yourself. Take breaks from looking at your phone, or other things that are triggering. Sometimes it seems a bit non-clinical, but that’s often the stuff that works best.’
If your thoughts are racing ahead, Dr Quinn-Cirillo recommends what she describes as mindful strategies. Grounding techniques, like feeling your feet on the floor, can help you feel like you’re physically in the moment. And basic self-soothing exercises, such as having skin-to-skin contact with your hand, can also reduce overwhelm and lower your blood pressure.
Learn to restore autonomy
Another solid frustration-busting tip is trying to restore some autonomy because, although our ability to make future plans is severely limited, there are plenty of life decisions that we can control.
‘There will still be things that you can be the prominent decision-maker on, from work to your home life or social life, or even how you do your shopping,’ says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘It’s about being autonomous, so if everyone on a WhatsApp group is going to a barbecue, it’s OK to tell them that you might not feel ready for that, or may decide to come at the last minute.’
Likewise, as we return to work, Dr Quinn-Cirillo says we should try to take some autonomy in that process: ‘If you absolutely have to go back to the office, do you have to go back five days? Can you do a phased return? Could you travel in less busy periods, and not during the rush hour?’
Establishing boundaries for yourself is an excellent way of coping with uncertainty, with Dr Quinn-Cirillo suggesting you limit how often you check your phone, temporarily unfollow any social media accounts that you could find overwhelming, and take time out on your own from personal relationships, even if it’s just for a 10-minute walk, in order to gain back some healthy control.
Understand when control goes wrong
Which brings us to a key point about control, which is that it should not become problematic. ‘As psychologists, we’d always want to keep an eye on statements such as, “I can’t function if I don’t have a few things planned”,’ says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘All the way through the pandemic, we said it was good to have a routine as it’s quite containing. But if you’re feeling you need to have that framework in order to be well, that’s a very different thing.’ If you’re concerned, speak to your GP.
Most positively, the irony is that this very uncertain experience we’re all going through may well stand us in good stead to overcome these difficult feelings of not being in control of our future. Given all that our brains have coped with since March 2020, they have now developed and learned to deal better with our current situation.
‘Brains are really flexible so we can learn new behaviours,’ says Dr Quinn-Cirillo. ‘It can be helpful that we’re not overly eager to be planning ahead, because we haven’t had to. People may worry, “What if I never want to plan again?”, but we do unlearn behaviours and learn the old ones again. It’s the wonderful, flexible neuroplasticity of the brain, and it applies whether you’re nine or 99.’
So, whether you can get back to planning that party or overseas trip this week, this month or next year, your brain is built to cope, and there are plenty of methods we can employ to help it. That might just sound like a plan.
Your mental health should always come first, and by setting boundaries you can keep control of that. Become a pro at establishing healthy boundaries in every aspect of life.