From summer holidays to friendly get-togethers, no event has been safe from the government's changing COVID-19 rules — meaning that 2020 has truly been the year of cancelled plans and ever-adapting expectations. But how does persistent frustration and disappointment affect our mental well-being in the long run? Quite significantly, it turns out.
As 1 in 5 adults reported that they had cancelled travel plans abroad because of the coronavirus, psychologist and clinical director of Private Therapy Clinic Dr. Becky Spelman explained that our attachment to plans predates the current situation. "As a species, ritual and ceremony are important to us," she said. "That's why we mark important life events by getting together with others and having a special day characterised by ritual, ceremonial, and emotional rites of passage. The more time and emotion we invest in any plan, the more difficult it can be to see it all come to nothing."
Although our responses to cancelled plans can be extremely varied, Niels Eék, psychologist and cofounder of mental health and self-development platform Remente, warned that prolonged uncertainty can have a profound effect on our mental health. "We have all experienced the cancellation of plans in some way or another this year, leaving a lot of us feeling like there is very little to look forward to," he said. "What's more, we're currently seeing little light at the end of the tunnel, so it is very difficult to concretely reschedule plans. This uncertainty is difficult for many people to accept. For some, the lack of control is hard to come to terms with, whilst for others, the frustration of being unable to do the things that would typically make them happy can be difficult to manage."
Whether it's a wedding or funeral, graduation or birthday party, the emotions attached to milestone events are complex enough without an open-ended pandemic and repetitive cancellations thrown in the mix. Psychologists liken letting go of a life you planned to a loss, which therefore needs to be grieved appropriately — a sentiment that Niels agrees is an important process. "We mentally prepare for these events, whether they are good and exciting or sad and apprehensive, so when plans get cancelled, it is important to not ignore or bury your emotions as you won't learn how to cope, which is essential when dealing with future feelings of negativity or disappointment," Niels advised. "Instead, try to frame these moments through the mindset of a grieving process. If you feel angry in that moment, be angry; if you feel sad, then allow yourself the time to acknowledge those feelings; and, if you feel tears coming, allow yourself to cry. Registering the loss, and processing the subsequent feelings of grief and sadness, will allow you to move forward in a healthy way "
The good news (because we could all do with some of that) is that dealing with uncertainty will ultimately make us stronger people. Instead of dwelling in feelings of disappointment and anger, Niels suggests doing what we humans do best — adapting. "By tweaking plans, rather than simply cancelling them, feelings of annoyance, frustration, and uncertainty can be reduced. We will be more tolerant of the situation if we feel we are somewhat in control of how it is being changed," he said. This could mean swapping a fun dinner party for a Zoom dinner instead, or a cancelled coffee catch-up for a FaceTime walk with a friend.
But the most important factor is to acknowledge your feelings. "There is no set way to grieve, nor is there a right or wrong way to do it. What is important is to make room for the process. For some, it will be a matter of days; for others, it can take months or even years," Niels added.
"Acknowledge the pain, accept that your emotional reaction is going to be unique to you, and seek the support of those you trust," Niels suggested. "Journaling can help to identify the stressing factors, as well as helping to process emotions and feelings. Detail what you feel grateful for each day to promote an optimistic outlook by training your brain to focus on the positive over the negative aspects of each day."