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The government may have published a tentative roadmap for exiting lockdown, but we still don’t know when, or if, life will return to normal. As a result, planning for the future feels impossible. The fate of holidays, weddings and even family meals remain uncertain. All we have is the here and now – we’re living in an “infinite present”.
This was a phrase shared on Twitter by American journalist Helen Rosner, who heard it during a therapy session. The infinite present, her therapist explained, is upon us because we have “no future plans, no anticipation of travel or shows or events or celebrations. It’s an endless today, never tomorrow”.
It soon became clear that the idea resonated with people in lockdown around the world, as the tweet gained more than 79k likes and 12k comments.
“That’s literally how I’ve been feeling this entire time, but didn’t know how to describe it,” one person commented. “I feel guilty if I look forward to the future and tell myself to stop thinking about it.”
Another person added: “A friend recently described the date as April 53rd. I thought that captured the moment perfectly.”
It’s completely normal to feel flat without plans for the future, psychotherapist Lucy Beresford tells HuffPost UK, so don’t panic if the phrase “infinite present” feels a little too relatable right now. Visualising the future usually acts as a spur for excitement or motivation, so it’s understandable that for some people, this new way of living can become “totally numbing”.
“Without stimulation, we can start to feel as though our life has no meaning,” she says. “Repetitiveness runs the risk of making us lose interest in life, because our brains love new things to explore and figure out.”
We often hear that focusing on the present by practising mindfulness is a good way to combat stress and anxiety. But is mindfulness still useful if your present hasn’t started to feel painfully boring?
“Being in the present is still important because ‘future-tripping’ [worrying about things that haven’t happened yet] can make us feel anxious or helpless,” says Beresford. “Staying in ‘the now’ is a really good tool, just not all the time. Otherwise you miss out on the joys of reflection and anticipation.”
As with all things in life, balance is preferable. You may not be able to plan for the future, but you might benefit from trying gratitude forecasting, which involves thinking about all the things you will be grateful for when they return.
The anticipation of something – like a holiday or family gathering – can often be as enjoyable as the real thing, says Beresford, “some people would argue, even more so”. We can still anticipate joy in lockdown – just think smaller. Sex, an ice cream, your favourite dinner, a weekend lie in, the smell of your morning coffee or an evening of no Zoom calls.
You can complement this future thinking by diarising your present day to make it feel less repetitive. This might mean scheduling a family call, following an online gym class, or planning to watch something specific on TV, rather than mindlessly turning on Netflix, Beresford suggests.
Creating small, short-term goals will also help. “It could be tackling a new recipe, cleaning out the spare room, weeding the window-box, or signing up to be a phone buddy for a care-home,” she says. “Think of ways to get outside yourself, and plan what you can do for others at this time.”
Her golden rule for breaking out of the infinite present? “Stop the Covid-19 chat on video calls. Force you and your friends to find other topics to talk about.” Sounds good to us.