When will things go back to normal? Experts say that's the wrong question amid COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world and countless people have longed for a way of life before the pandemic.
This desire will likely only add to our sanity.
"Our brains are really trying hard to get back to normal and go back to January 2020," said Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of a book on Adapting to "The New Abnormality" of COVID-19 USA TODAY.
But that's just not possible, said Tsipursky. Some of the losses in recent months are permanent. The dark cloud of coronavirus risk will persist - possibly for years.
"Normal" means different things to different people. Tragically, for hundreds of thousands of Americans, life before the pandemic would include a loved one who died of COVID-19 this year.
For some Americans, a return to normal would restore good health and financial stability. For others, it's a world of concerts and gatherings, hugs and handshakes.
There is nothing wrong with hoping for a better and more stable future, New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen told USA TODAY. But it's important to realize that this is likely a long-term fantasy, she said.
Hope is not a luxury: it is important to mental health.
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An ongoing threat
The fight against this highly contagious virus continues to rule daily life: cases are increasing; the president is sick; Disneyland is still closed and the death toll is comparable to some of our most tragic wars.
That won't always be the case. Tsipursky described a scenario where increasingly effective vaccines and treatments slowly reduce the spread of the virus over the years - a gradual process, and not a quick return to life in January 2020.
Dr. Anthony Fauci has pointed to a similar future, warning that approval of a vaccine would not be an "overnight event" that will quickly bring the nation back to a normal way of life. Even "the return to a level of normalcy similar to pre-COVID" could not occur until late 2021, he said in early September.
As long as the virus continues to spread, previously normal activities such as going to a bar, going to a crowded concert, or even hosting a family get-together over the holidays involve significant risks. And these risks don't just affect your own health, emphasized Tsipursky.
With the virus chasing the vulnerable, a normal holiday gathering this year may "kill grandma," Tsipursky said. And the virus' path to such a vulnerable person can weave its way through their family's everyday activities.
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Accept the current reality
Months ago, experts recommended embracing grief amid the pandemic. It's okay to mourn the loss of a job, the postponed or virtual graduation ceremony, the favorite restaurant that has closed.
Tsipursky and Oettingen today recommended a similar way of thinking: It is important to accept that this disease will continue to change our daily lives for a while.
It's easy to bother with "if only," Oettingen said - to dream of enjoying something that's been lost in the past few months or what life would be like if the pandemic was over.
But in many cases, these fantasies will not materialize in the near future. And to wish it were different is pointless, said Oettingen.
Adjust your expectations and fantasies
A more positive approach: spend a quiet moment carefully adjusting thinking and expectations.
Oettingen, who has written extensively about converting wishes for the future into actionable goals, recommends a method called "WOOP" - or wish, result, obstacle, plan.
The Goal: Let go of fantasies that are impossible or healthy so you can find new ones to achieve.
Be precise, she said. Think carefully about what you're missing amid the pandemic - what do you really want?
Those who miss face-to-face meetings are likely to crave social connection. Those who miss travel may miss the relaxation - or maybe the adventure.
There are ways to achieve these things even amid a pandemic, Oettingen said. In many cases, it is an opportunity to uncover something joyful that has been hiding in sight.
Social connection can be found in virtual visits with long-lost friends. For relaxation, take a quiet stroll along a nearby river. Adventure can be found by finally going down the river.
It's an individual process, said Oettingen: "Get creative when you find something that is feasible for you during the pandemic."
But a happier life will not be possible without measures, said Oettingen. So the next few steps are crucial: find out what's getting in the way of you reaching this new goal, and then create a plan to overcome it.
Letting go of your fantasies about life before the pandemic is not only good for your mental health, but also your physical health, Tsipursky said.
"There are so many people who haven't changed their thinking patterns," he said. As the months go by, they feel that living out their fantasies of normal life is likely safe for them and their family - even if they are not.
"Don't pretend things are normal," said Tsipursky. That can be a "tragic, tragic mistake".
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: COVID: When will things get back to normal? You won't, say experts
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