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We all want to know when life will return to “normal”. It’s a question being asked daily – whether that’s by friends and family, or journalists during the government briefing. But so far, we have no firm date to cling onto.
Some of us may have eagerly awaited that initial three-week lockdown date, only for it to be extended for another three. Those in vulnerable groups may have their sights set on 12 weeks from the day social shielding measures were announced.
Meanwhile, a report published in the journal Science suggests after lockdown ends – a date we don’t know for certain yet – “prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022” to prevent the virus resurfacing at dangerous levels. Put simply, we don’t have an accurate timescale for the end of this pandemic – but it’s human nature to keep asking for one.
“We’re creatures of habit and routine, so planning is part of that routine and habit-forming behaviours,” counsellor and psychotherapist Nora Allali-Carling tells HuffPost UK. “It can be very difficult for people to sit with the unknown, especially if the unknown is coupled with immense fear and heightened levels of uncertainty.”
The need to know when this will end is paramount for some people, because it enables them to work towards a personal, professional or life goal, adds Allali-Carling. It motivates them to accomplish something.
This very act of life planning also provides a welcome distraction to stress and anxiety, says counsellor and psychotherapist Lucy Fuller. So with no timeline – and therefore no structure – to make such plans, we’re missing the catalyst to direct us away from negative thoughts. And without time, we can start to feel a little lost.
So, should we pluck a date out of the air to have something to focus on? Fuller thinks not. “It doesn’t necessarily make it easier to have planned dates ahead of us if the time plan is susceptible to change, especially at short notice,” she says. “Change is also a known trigger for anxiety, so it must be difficult for the government to decide the best way to give information to the public.”
The best solution, says Fuller, would be for the government to outline what to expect when social distancing is relaxed – e.g. a plan of order, such as schools first, then shops, then restaurants – an idea floated by Labour leader Keir Starmer. ”[This would] give the public some hope of better times to come without any fixed promises on timing,” she says.
But without a detailed exit plan – or a fixed end date to look forward to – there are still ways to let go of our fascination with time, or at least relieve some of the pressure it gives rise to.
Firstly, get your wellbeing basics in order, says Allali-Carling, as this will empower you, “whilst managing a situation we are powerless to change”. Tips include avoiding excessive news consumption, staying remotely connected with loved ones, writing a gratitude journal and seeking out online therapy or faith groups if they help you.
Fuller says the age-old saying “take each day as it comes” may help some, but others with a strong desire to control their future may find it frustrating. For those in the latter camp, she recommends making a list of what you want to achieve on a weekly basis as a result of your change in circumstances.
“This can be anything from clearing out a cupboard or learning to crochet to setting up an online business,” she says. “Whatever our circumstances, if we can reward ourselves with some small triumph, it will deflect from the sense that time is drifting away.”