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It’s nice to fantasize about a return to hugs and large gatherings. But is it healthy?

The desire to get back to “normal” is a popular coping mechanism in these times.

Two friends embrace in the street.
Fantasizing about a return to “normal” is one reaction to the collective trauma of a pandemic.
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Few things have the power to steal your sense of normalcy and safety like a pandemic. Our most vulnerable citizens have been devastated, businesses have been destroyed, and the way we work, care for others, and manage time has been altered.

As a nation, Americans have experienced a collective trauma that has us longing for a pre-Covid-19 world. A world of grocery shopping without masks, handshakes without fear, and, for many of us, a break from worrying about paying rent and losing loved ones. This desire for normalcy is what underscores the lavish plans people are making when shelter-in-place orders are fully lifted in every state. “When the outside world opens up, I’m throwing the biggest party and hugging everyone I ever met” seems to be the statement most often echoed across social media.

These expressions, although clearly an exaggeration said in jest, offer a glimpse at a very real assumption — that things can return to normal. Which raises the question: Is it emotionally healthy to believe in the same “normal” post-pandemic, or is this a dangerous coping mechanism? What has history taught us about societal changes after a collective trauma? And what exactly will “normal” look like?

Vox spoke to Jeff Greenberg, a psychologist and co-author of the book In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror, about why humans react the way they do to the threat of death and whether there’s a balance between remaining hopeful and being practical. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Shanita Hubbard

I’m just going to get straight to it: Do you think, collectively, we are grabbing on to fantasies about what a post-Covid world is going to look like as a way to protect ourselves from our emotions?

Jeff Greenberg

Yes, a lot of us feel like we are waiting for a normal reality to return. We are not doing a lot of the things we used to do. We aren’t going out to concerts, shows, or movies. We’re not spending time with friends. We are all sort of in a holding pattern trying to live our lives the best we can. A lot of us are losing our sense of time, and days are running together, especially if you are working from home. This isn’t our normal routine. Most of our symbolic realities have been altered significantly in a negative way by the virus and the consequences of the virus. I think it’s inevitable that we are looking forward to a more normal reality. The most comfortable thing is to imagine that this will all go away and we are going to go back to the same symbolic reality that we know.

Shanita Hubbard

I agree that it’s comfortable to fantasize, but is it healthy to fantasize about going back to our old realities? How does this serve us?

Jeff Greenberg

Yes and no. A little bit of unrealistic optimism can be healthy while we are experiencing this. But at the same time, it can set you up for difficulties adjusting when that future reality isn’t as simple. Fantasies can provide hope, but you don’t want to go too far. For example, you hear people saying things like, “We will never have sports again; live sports are gone forever.” Being overly pessimistic is just as unhealthy as being overly optimistic.

Shanita Hubbard

Is there a healthier way to cope?

Jeff Greenberg

You can balance fantasies and practicality. For example, you should imagine yourself traveling again if that was part of your life. These are helpful thoughts. It would also be helpful to think about what the new conditions of traveling will look like. Yes, a flight from NYC to Italy may still be in your future, but this may also look like wearing a mask on a nine-hour flight.

Fantasies are great, but they have to be practical. And being overly pessimistic is not helpful, either. Research on affective forecasting shows that people overestimate the negative impact of future circumstances. Simply put, we are better at adjusting to negative circumstances than we think we will be. For example, the scrutiny when we go to airports is much greater after 9/11, but after enough time we adjusted to things like taking off our shoes, taking out your laptop, removing liquids, and just a much slower security screening. The healthier approach is to imagine there will be changes, but reassuring yourself that individually, the people you care about, and society as a whole, will cope and adjust. We will come to terms with the changes.

Shanita Hubbard

Are there stages of coming to terms with changes?

Jeff Greenberg

It can be difficult to generalize this. This is really unique, so I wouldn’t put a number on the stages. But there will be a process of adjustment. There will be resistance to the changes. There will be people experiencing reactants — when we feel like a freedom that we have is being threatened. This is why we hear things like, “I thought I had the freedom to go to a movie, and now I don’t.” The requirements to wear masks are creating reactants. Some people are resisting because they feel like the government is telling us we can’t breathe freely. We see this in all the protests. So there will periods of adjustment for this. The key is to look at this with a broader perspective and recognize how we’ve dealt with difficult challenges in the past.

Shanita Hubbard

As someone who has studied the impact of behavior during and post-9/11, is there anything about this pandemic that is reminiscent of what the world felt then?

Jeff Greenberg

Yes, in both cases there is a deeper psychological threat of our mortality and vulnerability. Covid-19 particularly threatens what I call our bubble of security. We function as these symbolic beings of our identities — we’re journalists, doctors, teachers, etc., and we are part of this larger meaningful world, and these sorts of threats bring us back to, well, maybe we’re just these physical creatures who are trying to stay alive, and we can die soon due to these types of threats.

When we feel like this, we want to reinforce our beliefs in symbolic realities that typically protect us, so we grab on to heroes and create villains. In 9/11, the “villains” were the Taliban, and during Covid we’ve seen an increase in prejudice [toward] Chinese people and Asian Americans. We need our heroes, so we grab on to either [New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo or [President] Trump, depending where you lean politically, while others grab on to Dr. [Anthony] Fauci.

Shanita Hubbard

Is there anything about the shutdown of the economy that may have a physiological impact on us that we might not be mentally and emotionally preparing for?

Jeff Greenberg

Most people are feeling less significant in their lives because they have been cut off from the things that make them feel meaningful. A lot of people that are laid off are no longer providing for themselves and their families and are no longer pursuing their occupation because of all the things that have been shut down. When you’re out of work, you don’t feel great about yourself and you don’t feel like you are contributing to society. This presents a psychological threat to people, and that needs to be considered.

Shanita Hubbard

How do we as a society prepare for this on a large-scale and individually?

Jeff Greenberg

We have to allocate more funds and resources into mental health services. On an individual level, people will have to be more cognizant of their own vulnerabilities and be open to receiving mental health support.

Shanita Hubbard

It can be challenging to have this conversation about what the world will look like in the next few months, because the truth is none of us know with complete certainty. What does a balance between remaining hopeful and being practical look like?

Jeff Greenberg

It’s a complicated question, but it’s important to state that even after 9/11, the world was different but it wasn’t completely unrecognizable. The same will be true now. Things that we miss about our pre-pandemic life may gradually come back. We will not flip a switch and the pre-Covid world will exist. Expecting too much too fast will crush people. Adopting an approach somewhere in between is going to be the best approach.

It’s well documented in science that humans are very good at adjustments. We have a psychological immune system, which allows us to make adjustments in our lives after a negative impact. Also, history tells us we are resilient people. With proper time and safety precautions, we will create a new but recognizable normal.