After a year of postponed weddings, canceled vacations and virtually held events, the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel is finally beginning to shine. Millions of Americans have already received vaccines, and restrictions are being lifted across the country. That said, there’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future. While it might not be the right time to start booking a non-refundable trip, giving yourself something to look forward to can have a positive effect on your mental health. Even if your plans are vague, shifting your thinking and behavior towards the future can leave you feeling energized and hopeful.
Why having a plan is good for your mental health
Research shows that uncertainty about the future produces anxiety, while a recent study from NC State University suggests that mindfulness and future planning may collaboratively work to reduce stress. The process of scheduling plans to mitigate future potential stress is known as proactive coping, and researchers found that, when used in conjunction with mindfulness, it has a stress-reducing effect.
Practices in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have also shown that focusing on the future can help people with mental health issues and can even assist in recovery from trauma. One study showed that participants in “Future Directed Therapy,” who worked on planning for the future and acquiring the skills they needed to reach future goals, experienced a decrease in depression and anxiety symptoms and an improved quality of life when compared to participants in a standard CBT program.
So if you’re feeling anxious or depressed, taking some time to schedule plans for yourself to look forward to (while being mindful of your current emotions) may help you move forward. Here are some things you can do to reap the benefits of proactive planning.
1. Actually use a calendar
Start marking birthdays, vacations and other future events on a calendar, and consider a hanging wall calendar to help you visualize the plans you have coming up for the month. Don’t just focus on big events, either; one of the cornerstones of CBT is scheduling pleasant activities for yourself. For example, you could pick out a movie to watch on Saturday night in advance or schedule a virtual hangout with a friend.
2. Create a “travel” reading list
Even if you’re not planning on traveling until 2022, there’s plenty you can do to get inspired. Read up on where you’re going, look at maps and plan itineraries, start practicing a new language or shop for your packing list, especially if you’re using a travel credit card with a good rewards program or sign-up bonus. Studies have shown that just the process of planning a vacation can boost your mood, even more so than taking the trip itself. There’s a lot you can look into before you hit the road, including reviews of nearby restaurants and potential day excursions, and it could make you feel hopeful to plan the details in advance. The bonus? Getting to know the locale ahead of time can reduce anxiety when you get there.
3. Take advantage of your days off
Sometimes, you might need a day to just do nothing. Or, you might feel better after accomplishing several tasks on your to-do list. Check in with yourself to see what you need from your days off, and be compassionate about providing plenty of opportunities for self-care.
4. Start writing letters and sending cards
Snail mail means you won’t get an instant response via text; you’ll have to wait for a written reply. That anticipation may boost your mood. And if you want an added mental health bonus, consider writing letters of gratitude to anyone who has helped you in your life. Research has shown that this practice can improve your mental health, even three months after you cease the writing exercise.
5. Plan monthly get-togethers
Start a book club, movie club, game night or other monthly group that you can host virtually now and in-person eventually. Studies show that these types of pleasurable activities can improve your physical and mental health. Pick an activity you enjoy or check out Airbnb Online Experiences for something new you’ve never tried.
6. Get back to nature
Both light and physical activity can increase your happiness, and most state and national parks are still open for visiting during the pandemic as long as you wear a mask. Consider scheduling a short road trip on a day off, or simply make a routine of walking in the park each day.
7. Get outside of your comfort zone
Therapists tend to agree that stepping outside your comfort zone allows you to face your fears and can turn you on to exciting new interests and hobbies. Start with baby steps so you don’t push yourself into a state of anxiety. You might try a new hobby, cook a recipe with foods you don’t typically eat, practice a new skill, or meet a new friend. If you discover something new you like to do with your time, you can add it to your calendar to further boost your happiness.