During a pandemic or not, when you cancel or postpone in-place or even theoretical plans without designating an alternative, you may feel stagnant, frustrated, and even angry as a result. And according to cognitive neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, our emotional instinct powered by the neurotransmitter dopamine explains a big reason why. "It powers something called the seeking system found in the lower brain," says Dr. Wise. "When people can't follow through on their plans, that whole seeking system gets frustrated, and when that happens, it's not unusual for people to get flared up in anger, low-level frustration, and irritability." When you don't ultimately get what you seek (be it a long-awaited trip or job promotion), your brain basically throws a temper tantrum that convinces you your life is on pause and you are frustrated.
Dr. Wise adds that many of us tie self-worth to life's big-deal events, and the nature of COVID-19 makes rescheduling much of anything with a sense of confidence, which only compounds the resulting mental strife. "Depending on how people are wired, [postponing events] may make them feel very triggered into feelings ruled by another system: the fear/anxiety system," adds Dr. Wise. "You can end up with people who are depressed or anxious because they feel thwarted in their ability to move forward with their plans with other people."
"Quarantine does make you get real with yourself on what's important, because we've become aware from this experience how life really is short." —Kristen Groos, LPC
To soothe your brain's operating system, and by proxy your emotional responses and outlook, it may seem like the obvious course of action to take is to not stall your life: Throw that Zoom wedding, try having a child, apply to start your master's program even if class can only convene online. But mental-health counselor Kristen Groos, LPC, says that your decisions should be made in a more personalized, nuanced, and thought-out manner. Because ultimately, what you choose to cancel, shift, or postpone should take into account your grander priorities, goals, and values. "It's about being realistic about where you are, what's happening for your community, and how bad the outbreak is there," says Groos. "It's also being honest and true to yourself about what's important to you."
Of course, this will look different for every single person. For instance, perhaps a couple is ready to have a baby but was waiting until after their big wedding that their entire family can attend. Now they may decide to go ahead and get pregnant and save the ceremonies for post-COVID-19. And someone seeking a master's degree who really values the in-person dynamic of the classroom may consider putting their studies on hold for a year, if they can. And if you've been debating whether or not to move in with your partner, maybe you can consider quarantine a test-run period before you go through with official arrangements and break your lease. These choices don't constitute postponing all your plans, but rather reprioritizing within the scope of reality so that your life can move forward in the ways that are most meaningful and fruitful for you, specifically.
And if history is any indication, it's clear that times of strife can shine a spotlight on what we really need in our lives. The New York Times reports that 1.8 million weddings took place once the United States joined World War II—two-thirds of which consisted of brides marrying newly-enlisted men. Why? We can't know for sure, but Groos posits a rather romantic reason, pointing to what really matters to a person. "Quarantine does make you get real with yourself on what's important, because we've become aware from this experience how life really is short, and you don't know how long you have and you don't know how long you have with your loved ones," says Groos.
Right now, the world has imposed explicit, safety-minded boundaries barring you from taking that vacation of a lifetime and stalling you in a career you no longer love, but your life as a whole isn't canceled until 2021. It's up to you to prioritize the dreams and goals that will bring you joy despite this strange situation. "I think [this time] could even be something that you look back on with clarity. Like, 'we decided to get married in the midst of COVID because we knew how much we love each other and we didn't want it to be about the cake, or about any of the things that aren't really what's most important to us,'" says Groos. "It could give people the opportunity to get really clear on what really matters."
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