How many times have you thought, “When coronavirus ends, I will ______” — as if you’re putting off everything (or at least the things you most love) until then?
They say that human civilization was built around our supposedly unique ability to plan for the future. Besides the fact that apes and birds do this too, it turns out that focusing exclusively on the future, and forgetting to live in the present, may not be the best way to get through a pandemic, especially when we don’t know when it will end.
I talked to several therapists who all agreed: Don’t wait for the future; live now. Here are their tips on how to do this from the (in)convenience of your living room:
Get creative with important life events.
With many important life events — like graduations, weddings, baby showers, religious holidays, and more — canceled in their original forms, people are struggling with what to do instead. “Whatever it is, don’t wait. Do it now. You can always do it again later,” suggests Liz Lerner, the psychotherapist behind Your Inspired Choices.
“Our physiological mind-body clock pays attention to major life events,” she explains. Basically, our brains are waiting with anticipation for these things to happen and when they don’t, we grieve. “We worry they may not happen or feel disappointed that they may be different. So do something in the present to mark the event and reset that body clock for the future date.”
Lerner recommends we get creative, like many people have, and do something symbolic to commemorate the occasion. Host your mother’s surprise party on Zoom. Hold a pool party, where everyone joins from their bathtub. Take the vacation to Italy you’ve always wanted, by scrolling through the Wikipedia articles on famous Italians sights, cooking Italian food, and listening to Pavarotti. Between birthday car parades and Instagram dance parties, the options are as wide as your imagination. And you can celebrate all of these events again in “real life” once the quarantine is over. Now you will just have more time to plan.
Choose to be optimistic about the future.
“Worrying isn’t very productive unless you do something with it,” asserts psychotherapist Dr. Ann Turner , who teaches patients not to “pre-worry.” If it helps people to practice gratitude or develop acceptance, thinking about the worst-case scenario can be helpful. However, any rumination past that isn’t healthy for the autonomic nervous system — the anxious thoughts will keep your body in a high-stress state.
“Fear doesn’t have any predictive power,” agrees psychologist Dr. Carla Messenger of Mindful Solutions. “Uncertainty is terrifying, but it doesn’t mean the future will be the worst-case scenario.” If anything, the best-case scenario is just as likely. She encourages us to remember that “the future has more than one road map, and we create it as we go” — kind of like a GPS rerouting itself, though the destination stays the same. The future is not gone. It might just come in a different form than we expect.
“If we put our attention on the restrictions, it can become very depressing,” adds D.C. psychotherapist Jade Wood. “It builds; the walls feel like they’re closing in on you.” Yet there is gratitude, optimism, and joy in all of the paths, if you choose to look for them.
Benefit from premature hindsight now.
For anyone worrying about whether you’re doing coronavirus right, all of the therapists I talked to urged people to practice self-compassion. “Surviving is enough,” says Messenger. “Anything else is extra.”
Messenger suggests we consider how much we remember about our to-do lists from five years ago. This should give us more perspective on what we do and don’t remember. Most of us tend to have a positive outlook when we think back on our lives, especially when we think about how we learned and grew even from challenging situations that we had to overcome. “Everyone is learning now, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Are you happy with the ways you’ve been living? Are you treating your body with respect? Do you spend enough time with your loved ones? Are there aspects of your life you’ve been neglecting?
You can also use your premature hindsight to imagine what you’d like to look back and feel you got out of this period of time. You can then use that to prioritize your projects, whether it’s learning to bake bread or reconnecting with old friends.
Don’t forget to feel the moment.
More than anything, all of the therapists I talked to referenced the importance of staying present. “There’s nothing you can do about 30 or 60 days from now,” says Turner, whose work focuses on helping her clients be in the now. “But you can control what your day is like.” When you get up, what you eat, who you call. You can choose to appreciate the flowers blooming outside your window, and you choose not to read every last piece of news.
Those who have the appetite can also go inwards. “Take time to really grieve the loss of the future you expected,” says Wood. For some people, this pandemic might be reigniting abandonment issues, feelings of powerlessness, addictive behaviors, and more. “Some people may try to bypass these feelings, which is okay,” she adds. “People will have different appetites to dig their heels into the truth of that.” Be gentle with yourself as you experience these and consider journaling, talking with a friend or therapist, or mindfully observing your emotions through meditation.