In normal times, before the pandemic, there was a very easy solution to the January and February blues: fill up the calendar with some good old-fashioned holiday plans.
Oh, those were the days. We would trawl the internet for bargains and book Easter escapes, half-term getaways and summer adventures. Then, after we’d clicked “book”, our daydreams would be injected with some much-needed realism, for a holiday was just around the corner. We knew we would, in the near future, be clinking glasses at an airport or train station, toasting the trip ahead.
There are very real and very worrying mental health effects of this awful pandemic. We might feel anxious or depressed as we watch case and death numbers crawling up, or perhaps our worries centre on the systematic removal of our basic freedoms, or fears that the vaccine might not work as well as hoped. Or all the above.
For me, one of the hardest things about lockdown is the emptiness of my internal outlook. Previously I would stand from my temporal vantage point and see weddings, birthdays and holidays peppered to the horizon. Closer by, it would be things like drinks with friends, dinner at a nice restaurant, or five-a-side football every Tuesday.
It turns out that these things that we used to scribble into our mental calendars, including our holidays, were not just “nice to haves” – plans are essential in helping us to cope with everyday life, a leading psychologist assures me.
Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, tells Telegraph Travel: “Having things to look forward to can enhance our resilience and build our capacity to cope with daily life.
“In therapy, it’s a psychological strategy we actually encourage people to use. When we’re working hard to fulfil responsibilities, knowing we have something to look forward to at the end of it can help us push through as it provides us with a psychological reward.”
Some are saying Easter, while others are more cautiously predicting that holidays will be back on by summer. The fact is we don’t know when we will be allowed to travel again, and this uncertainty in itself can affect our happiness.
“We find it easier to tolerate something difficult when there is a categorical end point in sight. Having an end point helps propel us to push through, whilst also creating a sense of reward at the end of it. Without this, we can be left feeling powerless and ‘stuck’. This can create anxiety and also lead to low mood.”
And aside from the uncertainties, and the lack of things to look forward to, we are being deprived of the mental health benefits of the holiday itself, says Dr Touroni.
“Holidays are important because they give a much-needed break from the monotony of everyday life. They provide us with the opportunity to unwind so that we can return fully refreshed.
“Without having a proper break, the balance between what we have to do and the things we do simply for fun and enjoyment can fall out of whack. This can lead to negative emotions like anger and low mood because we’re not getting any of the mood-enhancing psychological benefits these breaks provide.”
So what is the solution? To book a holiday farther ahead in the future is one option, says Dr Touroni. “Booking a trip or making a bucket list for things you want to do when lockdown ends is one strategy that could help. But it’s also about trying to reframe how we experience these kinds of disappointments. It’s only natural to feel a sense of frustration when comparing our norm before.
“However, as much as we can, we need to shift our focus to a sense of gratitude – both for what we have right now and also the things we miss. What are some of the things you once took for granted? And how can you ensure that you appreciate them more fully when the restrictions do finally lift?”
I think Dr Touroni is onto something here. I can no longer stand the emptiness of the horizon, and will take her advice by making plans for the summer and beyond (with airtight cancellation policies in place, to mitigate against disappointment). And next time I raise that glass at an airport, or at 30,000 feet, or on board a train to one of the beautiful corners of our fine country, I will toast not just the trip ahead. I shall remember to say “good riddance” to the awful, trapped-in world that we currently, temporarily, inhabit. That is something to most certainly look forward to.