Looking toward the future poses a psychological risk when it comes to COVID-19

Uncertainty about what may happen next is a major stressor.

Watching the puzzling and destructive COVID-19 pandemic unfold has left many Americans deeply unsettled and emotionally shaken. It’s natural to wonder when the months-long nightmare will be over.

But in the case of the pandemic, it may be better for your emotional health to avoid asking, “What’s next?” says Emanuel Maidenberg, PhD, clinical professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and an expert on the stress and anxiety caused by man-made and natural disasters.

Though many of us feel better — and even more responsible — if we devise a roadmap for our future, now may be a good time to wing it.

“The current state is that people are depleted emotionally by trying to figure out what to do now, and more so, what will happen in the future. How is it going to go?” Dr. Maidenberg says. “Uncertainty is known to be the most stressful concept for us as human beings. We want to know what is going to happen so we can prepare. This idea that something can happen that we can’t prepare for is very stressful.”

While COVID-19 vaccines are being rapidly developed and new therapeutics to lessen the impact of the disease are emerging, much about the virus remains shrouded in mystery. As cases rise again in many parts of the nation, anxiety about the future remains high, he says.

A survey published in June from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed about 40% of respondents reported struggling with depression, anxiety, emotional distress or substance use — three to four times higher than similar surveys taken pre-COVID-19.

A recent survey from Mental Health America found the number of people reporting signs of anxiety and depression since the start of the pandemic hit an all-time high in September. The “State of Mental Health in America” report found 19% of Americans, or 47.1 million people, living with a mental health condition, an increase of 1.5 million over last year’s report.

“There is certainly much more need for psychological and psychiatric help in the general population now, particularly help with anxiety,” Dr. Maidenberg says.

From this baseline, we now face a new year weighed down by uncertainty. The length of the pandemic is taking a toll, Dr. Maidenberg notes. A trove of psychological research points to the unique consequences of experiencing prolonged suffering. For most people, he says, an emotional trauma linked to a sudden event, such as an accident or natural disaster, will not carry a long-term impact. However, prolonged suffering is different.

“What the future looks like, I don’t think anyone really knows. We’ve never had anything as prolonged as we do now,” he says. “The length of time we have to deal with this is a major contributor to mental health stress. This is something we’ve known from scientific data. Prolonged stress is the most impactful in its consequences.”

It’s within our control, however, to minimize the emotional toll of the pandemic, he says. It may take developing a new mental skill set that accepts a certain loss of control in our lives.

“It’s important to keep in mind that we are developmentally resilient to stresses,” he says. “It’s important to have that optimistic state of mind. We will recover, and life will get back to whatever it’s going to be. We can see resilience in many examples of how families are adapting to stressors.”

Families separated around the country, for example, are holding weekly Zoom pizza nights. College students who have had internships delayed are instead doing volunteer work in food pantries. Parents in neighborhoods full of young children are forming child-care collectives to help each other out.

A key coping strategy for these uncertain times is to focus on the present, Dr. Maidenberg says. The two questions — What will happen? When will it happen? — are unanswerable.

“It’s better to not anticipate exactly what time something may happen,” he says. “It’s good to have a positive outlook for something you want to do in the future but not assigning a specific plan.”

If your thoughts drift to the future, bring them back to the present, he says. Simple breathing techniques that are central to mindfulness meditation can be an effective tool.

“Orient yourself toward the present moment,” he says. “Being aware of where you are now is itself very calming because a lot of stress is related to being preoccupied with the future.”

Another effective coping strategy is to acknowledge your feelings and remind yourself that you’re not alone. Moreover, others may be suffering more than you are, Dr. Maidenberg notes.

“Validate your own experiences to yourself and validate the experiences of other people around you,” he says. “That, in itself, is a major relief for most people.”

For help with mindfulness and meditation, visit the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center.

Shari Roan is the author of this article.