“I always dreamt about what my wedding would feel like,” she said. “And it was a feeling of a lot of love, a lot of hugs. I knew that if we tried to go forward with it, it wouldn’t feel the way I wanted it to feel. There would be a lot of fear.”
Now, as 2021 begins, “I feel like I’ve mourned this loss like a death,” she said.
Kathy Wu, an assistant professor of psychology at Widener University and a licensed psychologist, says many of her clients have experienced similar heartaches. Early in the year, the pandemic disrupted all kinds of existing plans — weddings, graduation ceremonies, retirement parties, dream vacations, family reunions, holiday gatherings.
“I went through a lot of sessions where we’re just having to sort of acknowledge and validate the disappointment of having those plans fall through and be able to say, ‘Now what? What is still within your reach, or what are some things you’re willing to settle for?’ ” Wu said.
With no definitive end in sight, the pandemic has made it difficult to make new plans — for gatherings, travel, big events. Even as coronavirus vaccines promise a return to something like normal by the end of 2021, this planning limbo is unsettling for many people, Wu said, because planning yields a sense of control over the future.
“Plans sort of serve as a safety net for us, and without that we’re left feeling anxious and stressed and uncertain, which itself can be very, very discomforting,” she said.
Another reason people may feel adrift without plans is that planning helps you reach your goals, said E.J. Masicampo, an associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University. And when a goal or task lingers unfulfilled, it can create distracting mental chatter that makes it difficult to focus on other work. Masicampo’s research shows that making plans quiets that noise.
“When we set a specific plan, we’re often lifting a heavy burden off of our minds, freeing up some mental space,” he said.
In addition, exciting plans, such as a wedding or a great summer trip, provide a reward to work toward, some future happiness to anticipate, which can buoy the planner for months.
“People derive a lot of joy out of those positive experiences that they’ve planned for in the future,” Masicampo said. “It just sprinkles our day with a little joy and hope and optimism, just having that thing to look forward to.”
A 2010 study by researchers in the Netherlands illustrates this effect. The study found that vacationers’ biggest bump in happiness came during the eight weeks before the vacation, when they were anticipating their getaway.
That helps explain why a calendar devoid of celebrations and social events doesn’t just make life dull — the monotony can feel heavy and unending.
So how can you cope with a lack of solid plans? Wu suggested to use this pause to reconsider your canceled or postponed plans, and get more intentional about those goals. With more time to think, question and dream, you may continue to love the idea or realize your original plan wasn’t quite right.
“It’s an opportunity to really consider, what was this [plan] all about,” she said. “It really does challenge us to consider our values and what our ultimate goals are.”
Missed milestones can be a particularly troubling loss, Wu said, but if you had to forgo a significant event, it may be helpful to look further down the road and set a new goal for a more distant date.
Another strategy is to modify the original plan and replace it with something that’s possible now, Masicampo said. When you consider what was driving your goal, you may find a compromise to satisfy some of those motivations. It can be as simple as swapping a daily gym habit for home workouts or choosing to go ahead with a virtual wedding ceremony and planning to hold a reception with friends and family later.
“Underlying every sort of planned activity or goal is usually one or more values or desires that the person is trying to fulfill,” he said. You can think about your original plan, he said, and ask, “Why did I want that? Or what was I getting out of that?’ ”
Another strategy, Masicampo added, is to make a plan to plan later. You might feel distracted, for example, by the unknown of when you’ll be able to travel to visit your family and enjoy spending time together indoors, without masks. In that case, you might mark your calendar to revisit the possibility in a couple of months. That can help quell nagging thoughts of your incomplete goal: a visit with loved ones. At that point, it may be possible to start making plans for that reunion.
Many people have adapted to certain aspects of life in the time of covid-19, such as working from home, not going out to eat or wearing masks in public. But Brittney Morse, a San Diego licensed advanced alcohol and drug counselor at American Addiction Centers who is trained as a therapist, said it is important to remember the pandemic still adds stress to everyday life — and the lack of happy plans can only ratchet up the stress further.
She said people could focus on practicing healthy coping skills, such as deep breathing, taking a walk or exercising, stretching, journaling or catching up with friends by phone or video. It may also be useful to reflect on the reason your plans are on hold, she said.
“For myself, it’s really helpful to kind of zoom out and look at the larger picture,” she said. “Why are we not making plans? To protect ourselves, our family, friends, strangers, those with compromised immune systems.”
For Mas, who set a new wedding date in August, progress on the vaccine front brings a welcome jolt of hope — maybe her special day won’t get canceled again.
But her new vision is much more open-ended. She doesn’t know how it will turn out, and she knows there’s a possibility she’ll need to settle for a small civil ceremony and once again postpone the larger reception.
But she hasn’t abandoned planning altogether. She has booked a trip to Nepal to hike to the Mount Everest base camp in spring 2022.
“Maybe the wedding won’t happen in 2021, but at least I can look forward to March 2022 and have something to train for,” she said.
And as for planning a honeymoon, originally they thought they’d go to Thailand. Now: “At this point we’ll settle for anywhere we can drive and be safe.”