When will it be over? The psychology behind our obsession with an "end date"

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"Please tell me when this will end," my friend said to me during our virtual happy hour. He was pleading, on the verge of tears. The president gave it another month. Many health experts have suggested that this supposed deadline is problematic. Given the nature of this virus — which is new to us — there are too many variables to give an exact day and time when the pandemic will be over. But we, as humans, are desperate for a deadline. It doesn’t need to be totally accurate and it doesn’t even need to be soon. We cling, though, to shreds of hope linked to a date when we can go back to some semblance of normalcy. Why are we like this? What’s behind our innate desire to pin hope to a deadline?

“It comes down to an issue of control,” says Matthew Mutchler, psychotherapist and associate professor of counseling psychology at Delaware Valley University. “When we know there is an end date to something, it gives us a sense of agency, a sense of knowing. This makes coping easier. The more we don’t know about an important situation, especially one that can literally be life-and-death for people, it creates more stress. That lack of knowing and lack of any type of control can be crazy-making.”

Why are we like this? What’s behind our innate desire to pin hope to a deadline?

Mutchler explains that feeling stressed out about the lack of control we are feeling about the COVID-19 crisis is “normal.” The need to feel stable may even have an evolutionary component. “Stability is often needed for evolution,” explains Curtis Reisinger, an NYC-based psychologist and assistant professor at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. But isn’t evolution about change? Kind of, says Reisinger.

Some novelty inspires curiosity, change and adaptation, he tells me. “However, overwhelming novelty threatens any animal’s existence. Unpredictability poses a potential threat, physiological arousal, and increased vigilance. As a result, a psychological threat manifests as increased survival level arousal and decreased higher cognitive functioning.” Essentially, in times of great uncertainty — when we feel threatened as a species, and as individuals — we respond by panicking, which makes us less likely to make smart decisions. During these times, it makes sense that we'd look beyond ourselves to seek out answers.

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Part of the problem with our coronavirus-related anxiety, Reisinger says, is not just that we don’t have a deadline, but that we have too many. “Variability in media stories views causes many people to stick with news sources which support their own world view,” Resiginger says. “Consistency in messaging reduces anxiety and helps people sleep better at night. People who frantically shift from [news] station to station likely are more fear-driven than anything.” This is probably why we all collectively freak out when the President says one thing and the CDC says another, and why some people choose to stick with just one news source, regardless of its viability.

The experts I spoke with agree that wanting certainty is natural, but that when it’s not possible, it’s important to accept and adapt to that reality. “Darwin’s perspective was actually not survival of the fittest but survival of the most adaptable,” Reisinger tells me.

Many of us are taking great efforts to adapt these days, with the Zoom parties and social distancing walks. But anxiety lurks, of course. It is, I’m finding, possible to feel frustrated and angry and confused and also to stay calm enough to move forward with a sense of urgency. Both sensations can co-exist.

People who believe a task is not do-able, in this case, that there is no end to the current crisis, may lose the confidence required to forge ahead effectively

Seeing your feelings as normal and natural can help. “We are all a bit lost in the woods right now,” Mutchler adds. “People are having a huge range of emotions. It’s important for us to know that our feelings, even if they’re bothersome, are valid and okay to have.” When we feel like our feelings are bad or wrong, it compounds our stress response. Reisinger says that distress reduces our problem-solving skills.

On a practical level, dealing with the uncertainty we are collectively facing requires that each of us see the pandemic as a problem that we are going to have to work together calmly to solve. As individuals, this means practicing radical acceptance of our own emotions and circumstances and being mindful in the present moment.

Hope is also important. People who believe a task is not do-able, in this case, that there is no end to the current crisis, may lose the confidence required to forge ahead effectively, says Resisinger. If you are having problems finding perspective from your own necessarily limited worldview, try thinking globally. “Beliefs which foster a ‘30,000 foot view’ or meta-awareness view are better able to grasp the big picture,” Reisinger says. In a big picture perspective, there is no one right point of view and no one deadline, and it’s okay, because it all comes together when you look at this puzzle from higher up (or, say, six months from now).

Spiritual practices can be helpful for finding a wider lens to view your experience through, Reisinger suggests, but we also have to be reasonable about how quickly we can adopt new ideas. I’m kind of a Buddhist and I know that it’s pretty un-Buddhist (and unrealistic) to beg for a deadline and cling to it, yet still I cling.

Yes, psychologically speaking, we would all be better off if we could “be with” our anxiety and be at peace with uncertainty. But most of us aren’t exactly that evolved yet, and that’s okay. We’ve got at least a couple more weeks to work on it.