Dealing with disrupted plans
Do you know anyone who rushed off to book a holiday as soon as the government announced its roadmap for leaving lockdown? Some people started to make plans straight away, delighted to see light at the end of the tunnel. Others will have felt that the announcement raises more questions than answers – or even that things seem to be happening a bit too quickly.
We’ve all had plans that ended up going astray over the last year, from trips away and birthday celebrations to hospital appointments and exams. And there’s no guarantee that plans we make for the rest of the year won’t need to be changed or abandoned: while there are dates for each step in the roadmap, these aren’t set in stone, and we still can’t be certain what will happen and when.
The continued unpredictability of life is probably getting to many of us, and will be particularly tough for people with mental health conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) who look for certainty and control in their lives.
None of us can control everything that happens around the plans we make, but we can control how we respond when they don’t pan out as hoped. There are also things we can do to build our resilience to cope with disappointment.
Acknowledge how you feel. It’s normal to experience feelings like anxiety, sadness and anger when our plans are threatened or disrupted; we’ve lost something that mattered to us. Allowing ourselves to fully feel our emotional reaction helps us to understand and process what happened, and to move forward.
Accept that disappointment is sometimes inevitable. It’s an emotion we all experience – and never more so than now, when things are so unsettled. Disappointment can lead to sadness and depression, so it’s important not to become preoccupied with it. Instead of ruminating on the fact that a plan went awry, try changing your thoughts to ‘It happened, and now I’m going to work out what to do next’, or ‘I feel really disappointed, but I choose not to dwell on it’.
Recognise what’s out of your control. Many of the events that affect our plans are unavoidable or out of our hands. Accepting when there’s nothing we could do to influence the outcome can help us to handle our disappointment and frustration.
Adjust your expectations to the current circumstances. Sometimes, our expectations and standards are at odds with what’s actually achievable. These aren’t normal times, and everything is a lot harder! Have you made plans that were unattainable in hindsight? Are you expecting too much of yourself? Are you feeling pressure to do all the things you missed last year? This can lead to stress. That certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have hopes and make plans, but it will help if we stop and consider whether they’re realistic right now. If you find yourself thinking ‘I should…’, try softening this to ‘I’d like to’, ‘I will aim to’ or ‘I hope’.
If you’re anxious, test your assumptions. In CBT we do experiments to help people change the relationship they have with their thoughts, which enables them to manage their feelings better. If you’re worried about the uncertainty that still lies ahead, and believe you won’t be able to cope, do something that has an uncertain outcome and see how you get on. This could be as simple as trying something completely different if you always order the same takeaway! The message your brain will receive is that you can deal with uncertainty (and maybe even enjoy the outcome!).
Challenge negative thoughts. Be aware of what you’re thinking. If you have thoughts like ‘There’s nothing to look forward to’, or ‘I can’t do anything till the summer’, ask yourself whether that’s really true. It may happen slowly, but bit by bit we will be able to do more. Look at each step in the government’s roadmap, and consider what it means for you. What will you be able to do that you can’t do now? Avoid comparing that to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’! Instead, compare it to the strictest point of lockdown and recognise the progress being made from that point.
If you’re nervous about making plans, start small. Set a goal you feel confident you can reach, which will send a message to your mind that it’s OK to look forward to things. You could also book activities with flexible dates, or plan two different alternative versions – one which will work if restrictions end up being tighter than hoped. This will help you build confidence while remaining realistic.
You can explore how CBT helps us to manage our feelings here.