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Six Months of COVID: Adjusting to the New Normal
August 24th, 2020

Written by Moe Gelbart, PhD, Executive Director | Thelma McMillen Recovery Center

Here we are, six months later, and I don’t think anyone knew what to expect, or that the transformation of our day to day lives would continue, with no clear end in sight. Behavioral science tells us that fear of the unknown correlates with anxiety, and our society is certainly feeling that. We are experiencing the highest levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and substance use and abuse, particularly in the 25-45 age range group, but across all age groups. Teenage drug and alcohol experimentation is dangerously on the rise, with overdoses much higher as well.

While the need for professional mental health assistance is high, normal face to face visits are largely unavailable, and the use of telehealth has increased 1000 fold. We are all aware of what is causing us to feel so out of sorts: having to create new routines; economic fears; health concerns for ourselves and our loved ones; and, one of the most significant issues now that the summer is coming to an end, our children and returning to school. Our day to day endless choices, of going to see family, sending our kids to school, eating in restaurants, and more, are guided by our personal level of comfort, but are not easy and cause deep analysis and concern. However, we are resilient, and we have much more strength and capabilities than we are often aware.

Although we are in a “new normal”, most are adapting and adjusting, and doing the best we can. The immediate future is unknown, but there are some things to consider that may make the journey less painful.

1. It is essential that we acknowledge our fears, concerns, loss, sadness, and other negative thoughts and feelings. Many of the people I work with are trying hard to put on a good face, and to deny any negativity. In reality, owning negative feelings are not only healthy, but are the first step in overcoming them. Although some may think this is a recommendation to give in, it is not. Having a positive attitude includes accepting the painful reality, and then finding ways to adapt. Learning how to see the proverbial glass as half full requires that we do not try and convince ourselves that it is completely full. Avoiding all/none, black/white thinking and replacing it with more accurate grey thinking allows us to live in the present and come up with solutions. In my work with people, I often use a metaphor of life being like a long river rafting trip, filled with dangerous rapids at times. We all have to take that ride, and we can’t turn around and swim upstream. At times, the river is pleasant, and other times, very rough and dangerous. We work to avoid disastrous accidents, and learn from each difficult rapid, and know, eventually, that we come out in a calm river, for a while. We also gain knowledge and experience from each difficult turn, and become more prepared for the next danger spot. Learning to go with the flow is not the same as denying painful thoughts, and trying to convince ourselves that all is great. When we try to do that, we fall short, and it often leads to shame, guilt, and feelings of inadequacies.

2. Although our lives have significantly changed, it is essential to establish and maintain routines, albeit new ones most likely. I suggest you still get up on a schedule, get dressed and groomed, and have a good part of your day planned. It is extremely important for parents to make sure their children are on a schedule, and not sleeping until noon, and then staying up until 2 AM on social media or playing video games.

3. Everyone has their own personal comfort level with activities, and it is important to respect your own, and not judge anyone else’s. It is especially difficult when family members do not share your level of safety concerns and measures, and you have difficult choices to make about being around them or not. Consider expressing your concerns to them clearly, but also making it very clear what your own limits are, without judgment. You cannot control someone else’s behavior, but you can control your own, eg., if a family member does not believe in social distancing and mask wearing, you can’t change them, but can chose whether or not to see them.

4. Relationships are more important than ever before. As I have written many times, social distancing does not mean social isolation. Interesting psychological research found that changing the terminology to physical distancing from social distancing actually improved people’s mood. Whatever is lost with physical contact can be replaced with meaningful, open, and caring communication, and we can all focus on that.

5. Acknowledge the difficult situation related to return to school. The most concern we all have is always for our children, and their health and well-being. We are faced with choices which are neither right nor wrong, and for which we have no clear correct path. Every family will have to use their best judgment, and do what they believe is right for their children. Respect your choices, but also respect others who may act differently.

6. Experiencing ups and downs in this changing environment is normal. Allow yourself to speak to trusted and caring friends and family if you feel you are not doing well. If you have feelings of hopelessness, have thoughts of hurting yourself, feel unable to function in your day to day life, are relying on drugs or alcohol to get by, or have severe mood disturbance, know that you can reach out for professional help, and that these thoughts and feelings can turn around.

Our new normal is difficult, but we have reserves and strengths to deal with those difficulties. Going through difficult experiences often makes us stronger. Adapting means finding new behaviors to deal with new situations. Remember: You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf.