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Lessons Learned: Preparing for 2021, A New Year, A New Normal
November 30th, 2020

Written by Moe Gelbart, Ph.D. - Director, Behavioral Health

As the holidays approach, we are numbed and fatigued over dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic for over ten months now. With the future still unknown, we are experiencing the highest rates of anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse in our lifetimes. We have, however, learned a great deal about ourselves, our families, friends, neighbors, healthcare providers, and our essential workers. We can profit from our experiences and in the coming year, we can thrive rather than survive.

Let’s look at some lessons learned:

We are stronger than we think we are. Resilience is defined as the ability to adapt well to adversity, tragedy, trauma, threat, and significant sources of stress. The experience of going through so much upheaval, change, illness, and more serves to remind us that we can adapt and cope. Problems can oftentimes be turned into strengths and opportunities, rather than liabilities. \In many instances, it is a matter of changing our attitude and perception. As an example, rather than becoming deflated by social isolation, we can respond and become more adept at verbal and written communication to bridge the distance gap. If we can’t go out to eat, we become more accomplished cooks. As difficult as distance learning is for our children, it can create an opportunity for our teachers to shine with their creativity, and so on. Remember, necessity is the mother of invention.

We are capable of change. Many of us feel secure and comfortable with routines, with established roles, and with familiarity. Our brains adhere to our structure and resist change. However, resistance can stifle growth. The pandemic has changed much of this. We all have new roles, which may include full time mom/dad; teacher; caretaker; chef; housekeeper. As a result, we have acquired new skills, have had the opportunity to spend more quality time with our children than we ever imagined, more time with our partners and spouses, and have had to become creative in how we spend and manage our time. Our time- honed boundaries have changed. We have much less time apart, much less independent time, much less time to transition from one role to the next, as work and home begin to blur together. Most important, we have managed, and need to embrace those changes and the capabilities we have shown.

Our attitudes and perceptions, and not necessarily our circumstances, determine our well-being. More than ever, we have realized that we can choose how to perceive events and stressors in our lives, and how we see them determines how we feel and how we behave. When stress or trauma occurs, (and it is certainly occurring throughout the pandemic), we can live in the present, control the things we can control, and deal with what IS, rather than catastrophize the what IF. We can work at continually seeing the glass as half full rather than half empty and in doing so, rise above the stress. We can recognize words matter, especially our inner narratives, and we can change the narrative to have better results. Rather than have “social distancing”, we can “physically distance” but remain socially close and connected. Research shows change in wording has a positive impact on one’s mood. Rather than thinking of mask wearing as an attack on our personal freedom, we can perceive it as a caring and giving act to all those around us. This skill of reframing our thinking goes a long way to improving our emotional state.

We can strengthen our resilience. I defined resilience as the ability to adapt to adversity. The great thing about resilience is it is a learned skill, an ability which can be continually practiced and improved on, and one which we can teach and train our children in. Those with improved resilience skills are more self-reliant, independent, optimistic, self-confident, able to grow from their mistakes, are problem solvers, and know not to seek perfection.

We can work on being happy. Up until about 25 years ago, the science of psychology was focused on helping those who were mentally challenged to improve and become more functional. In the last 25 years, the understanding of positive psychology has flourished, designed to help well people feel even better and achieve more success and happiness. Research indicates that happiness correlates with establishing good relationships; with giving to others; with practicing and expressing gratitude; with movement and exercise; and with developing meditative and mindfulness routines. These are areas that can be developed and worked on, and we can be intentional in our behaviors to continually climb the ladder of happiness. It is a skill that rests with us, and not with external or material things. The great news is that we can achieve this during the pandemic, and continue long after. The results are significant and measurable.

We have to adjust to a new normal, and 2021 will bring more changes, no doubt. Resilience is key, which brings me to one of my favorite sayings:

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.