When stay-at-home orders began a year ago, neither leaders, nor public health experts, nor the therapists counseling us through the crisis had a concrete idea of how long the pandemic—and the period of sustained isolation it bred—would last. A few weeks? A year? Two years?
As new cases peaked, plateaued, and peaked again, and the promise of a vaccine remained a distant dream, the most effective way of coping with life in COVID limbo was to think of the pandemic like a marathon: Focus on the present and brace for the long haul. But now, in March 2021, the tides are changing. Each day, Americans are getting inoculated by the millions, and cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are on the decline. Is it too soon to say the end is near?
“I think it's 100 percent safe to start getting excited for the light at the end of the tunnel,” Kimberly Diggles, a licensed marriage and family therapist, told VICE.
But much like the final stretch of a 10-hour road trip, this last part of the pandemic can feel intolerable. For a lot of people, it’s been easier to keep going precisely because they aren’t counting down the weeks, and are instead mentally preparing for more of the same. But once you know that a safe hug from a loved one or even a vacation is possible this year—and maybe even this summer—time might suddenly feel like it’s standing still. However, experts say that there are ways to spend your last few months of pandemic life that will help the time fly by, and prepare you for your days on the other side.
Fixating on the end of the pandemic may blind you to the progress that’s already been made. Think back to this time last year—most of the country was under strict stay-at-home orders, masks were in short supply, and medical professionals didn’t yet understand the virus—and consider how much closer you are to the end of this crisis than the beginning. “People need to really ask themselves, ‘Would I rather be in March of 2021 or March of 2020 when we didn't know how this was going to end up?’” psychiatrist Gregory Scott Brown told VICE. “We couldn't see where this was going at all. I think we’re in a much better position now.”
Now that you know there’s an end in sight, envisioning the future becomes a reward for your present self for having made it through the worst, and a treat for your future self who actually gets to experience the facial, wedding, or trip you’re envisioning.
Get specific now about how you want your life to look after the pandemic.
Although research shows positive anticipation can reduce stress and boost optimism, it’s a slightly different experience to look forward to the end of an ongoing stressful event (like a pandemic), Christian Waugh, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University, told VICE. Since the end of the pandemic won’t be a defined moment, try to be explicit about what exactly you’ll do in your version of post-pandemic life, whether that’s getting a massage or traveling internationally. “We know anticipation is much more powerful when you have a vivid and concrete thing you're anticipating,” he said. President Joe Biden’s recent target of a July 4 barbecue with friends and family is a perfect milestone to mark on your calendar. If you’d rather not choose a date, you could start planning a party with your closest friends, down to the attire and cuisine, but leave the date tentative until an agreed-upon milestone, such as “two weeks after everyone gets their second shot.”
After a year of relative confinement, you may experience analysis paralysis when deciding how to fill up your social schedule, given all the previously off-limits opportunities you’ll be afforded this summer. Make plans for your new normal before it arrives to avoid the anxiety of scheduling on the fly. Think about the people you’d most like to see and experiences you’d really like to have and prioritize those, psychologist Ryan Howes told VICE. And allow yourself to set boundaries, too. If you don’t think you’ll want to do a ton of socializing right away, or you want to protect the solo time you’ve come to appreciate this year, it’s OK to tell yourself, “I’ll keep weeknights free of plans for the first two months.”
But remember you’ll need to remain flexible if the timeline shifts.
Canceling plans has become second nature over the past year: Holidays, birthday celebrations, vacations, and other milestone events were shelved or postponed indefinitely. Maintain this level of flexibility in the event of a fourth wave or any other unforeseen event which delays vaccination progress, Diggles said. “This kind of flexibility isn't the same [as last year’s], it's still a hopeful flexible,” she said. “It’s a ‘not now,’ but there will be a time. Canceling something and postponing something feel very different.”
Even if you do have to postpone a June vacation, make a point to reschedule it for a later date, and continue to envision yourself lounging on a beach or enjoying foreign cuisine for as long as necessary—a practice that research shows boosts happiness. Don’t dwell on the fact that an event may not happen exactly when you planned, but instead celebrate that it will happen. “It’s not just about the plans, per se, but it's fun to imagine going on a nice trip somewhere, a room full of people at a birthday party,” Howes said. “It’s fun to savor those thoughts. It's a lot better than ruminating on negative thoughts.”
Set some mini goals or plan little at-home events to ward off impatience.
While all adults should be eligible for the vaccine by May 1, at least three months stand between now and full protection, depending on which vaccine you receive—and being eligible doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get your shot right away if clinics are overwhelmed and supply doesn’t meet demand. In the interim, think about setting daily goals, a multi-week training or education program, or a long-term project to help pass the time. Although he hasn’t stepped foot in his office in more than a year, Howes said he’s researching a new space for his practice for when he finally does return; it gives him something productive to do with his time now, and something to look forward to. Something like a 16-week virtual class or a “rest of quarantine bucket list” with your partner or roommates can also help make the time go by.
Not only does having events on the calendar give you a sense of control, Waugh said, a full schedule helps distract you so you perceive time as passing more quickly. Consider how agonizingly long the weeks leading up to a holiday or birthday felt as a kid; the same is true of waiting for a vaccine. “One thing about anticipation is it affects our sense of time kind of weirdly,” Waugh said. “When you want something really badly, it can slow time. If you don't want something to happen, it can tend to speed time.” Focusing on tomorrow’s knitting project or your goal of, say, reading 12 books in the next 12 weeks instead of the number of days until inoculation fends off impatience.
Don’t take unnecessary risks.
Don’t let excitement for the end of the pandemic blind you to the fact that it’s not yet over. When you’re optimistic, you take more risks, Waugh said. “Risk is all about saying ‘I’m able to do this thing and I think I can guess the cards right,’” he said. “It's linked to optimism and confidence in yourself in perceived efficacy, which is fine because we need people to fly planes and go overseas in the military and innovate on new products.” But in the face of a still-ongoing public health crisis, you still need to act with caution even if you are optimistic better times are ahead. Remain vigilant in masking, avoiding contact with those outside your household, and unnecessary travel.
Remember, you’re allowed to be hopeful.
Regardless of what you’ve lost, how you’ve struggled, and your relative privilege, everyone deserves to have hope for brighter days. “There are some people who are hesitant to be hopeful, and I think of that as a trauma response,” Diggles said. Given the collectively painful year society has endured, it’s natural to have your guard up, feel wary about the safety of public places, and even feel guilty at having made it through the last year relatively unscathed. “It’s OK to feel that way,” Diggles said. “That's a real feeling, that's grief. You’ve got to be able to acknowledge that that’s happening for you before you can push through it.”
Diggles reminds her clients that getting vaccinated and making plans for the future is a step in the right direction: Every additional inoculated person gets us closer to herd immunity, and enjoying life allows you to heal from the tragedy of the last year.
“Rather than wait until somebody says, ‘OK, all good, COVID’s over,’ find ways to find hope, even in the little things, at each juncture,” Diggles said. “Let’s find little things to have hope for and celebrate that.”
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