From March 2020 onwards, my brain focused on one thing: survive the pandemic until the vaccine is available. Life was undeniably miserable, terrifying, and isolating, but the long-term goal was clear. Common rhetorics were “Once we have the vaccine, I’ll do this” or “After I get the vaccine, I’ll go there.” This clear marker of when life would go back to normal made the waiting—almost—bearable.
Well, the vaccines have been available for over a year, and clearly, nothing is as it was. Masks are still necessary, COVID-19 cases are still common and further fueled by new variants, and testing precedes almost all social events.
I feel like I’m living in an extended groundhog day, one that may never end and has no “lesson for me to learn” to break the cycle. I’m boosted, masked up anytime I go somewhere and I avoid large groups. Yet, that understanding that I’m doing this for a limited period until the problem is solved is gone. The “solution” came, and the pandemic stayed along with it.
“Living in the short-term and a state of ‘temporary’ can create a sense of anxiety and dis-ease. It can feel extremely unsettling when nothing feels permanent, and things are fleeting,” says Jaynee Golden, LCSW, CADC-I, a teen & adult psychotherapist with Frame Therapy.
I’m scared, and I no longer have hope that I won’t always be.
Letting Go of Our Plans
Now I’m not sure what our leaders want us to be working towards? Herd immunity, despite the fact that most people who will get the vaccine probably already have? Or, darkly, an understanding that some people will die? That is a simply unacceptable outlook.
While I feel comforted that being a generally healthy, fully vaccinated, and boosted person lowers my chances of having a severe case of COVID-19, that only provides a limited amount of comfort. I think of my older relatives and friends with comorbidities who are at higher risk no matter how many vaccines they take. Personally, I worry about experiencing a mild case only to be saddled with indefinite long-COVID symptoms.
— Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a psychologist and professor
The lofty hopes I held onto at the beginning of the pandemic are long gone. Now I only seem to be capable of focusing on short-term goals:
- Don’t get sick today.
- Have enough at-home tests.
- Try not to spiral when faced with the overwhelming feeling that our governments have all but given up on protecting us.
I say the latter in response to everything from the government’s lack of financial follow-through to cancel at least a fraction of our student debt or provide additional stimulus checks when other measures fail to pass Congress to the public bearing the expense of masks and having little enforcement that people will use them in public spaces.
Finding Joy in Unpredictability
This isn’t to say that all my short-term goals are negative. Some may even be considered cautiously optimistic? For example, instead of thinking about seeing a friend or going somewhere a few months from now, I consider what safe but enjoyable adventure I can take in the next few days—no matter how small. Or I’ll set a three-day goal for meditating instead of a week.
“Over the past two years, people have set goals, expectations, and plans for the future which were repeatedly crushed by unexpected developments, new strains, breakthrough cases, and shutdowns,” says Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist, and professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. “By making short-term goals, there is more certainty they can be executed and in turn reinforces feelings of hopefulness, accomplishment, and progress.”
Romanoff credits this shift with our resilience and ability to still find joy in all the unpredictability. “We are observing a mass shift in the way in which people are achieving goals by focusing on making small steps toward them,” she adds.
— Jaynee Golden, LCSW, CADC-I, a teen and adult psychotherapist
“Taking a step back—in consideration of all the systemic and uncontrollable factors that led to disappointment this year, it is far more effective to build small accomplishments into your daily life, as they provide a sense of accomplishment and create a forward momentum to change our mindset to complete other tasks.”
There may be some merit in shifting focus to the present day in the pandemic—especially when it’s towards beneficial goals. “I see a lot of individuals with anxiety who are always focusing on distant things in the future and worst possible scenarios,” says Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “I tell them to not worry about the future obsessively and to instead focus on the present and what they can achieve daily or in the short term, and this is generally helpful to their mental health. I recommend this shift in thinking for everyone who is in an endless cycle of distress.”
Finding Ways to Cope
If you’re like me and struggling to cope with the shift from long-term potential to short-term goals, Golden has advice:
- Focus on what you ‘can’ control versus not – this will help you feel empowered and less anxious.
- Get grounded and centered through mindfulness exercises such as breathwork or meditation.
- Focus on the present. Pandemic or not, the only guarantee in life, is this very moment, the ‘now.’
- Remember that the pandemic is not your first hardship — even if it’s the longest — and reflect on what helped you through previous challenges.
- List your assets and strengths to help build your self-esteem and practice self-compassion.
- Do your best with the information you have.
- Practice gratitude. When we come from a place of ‘enough,’ or abundance and appreciation, we can feel at ease, see opportunity, and feel hopeful.
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