Adjusting to the new normal
Written by Jennifer Hanson
Normal life ground to a halt almost three months ago, and life as we know it may be permanently different now. More people are working and exercising from home than ever before, and there is an unspoken tension in crowded places. There’s no other way to say it: what we’re experiencing is the new normal. Since it’s obvious that this will extend for an undetermined amount of time, it’s a good idea to learn how to embrace these new changes, if only for your own personal mental health. Below are some science-based ideas for how to move forward.
Prioritize safety and health
Many pandemic precautions are based on the fact that public life isn’t exactly safe right now. Wearing masks, practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing are the things we have to do so that the rate of spread remains low. These precautions should be taken seriously and observed whenever you leave the house. Also, if you’re somewhere where people aren’t observing these protocols, leave and don’t feel guilty about it. Give yourself permission to make protecting your health your top priority right now.
Your overall health is the first line of defense after social distancing. It’s important to make sure you’re staying hydrated, eating well and taking care of your mental and emotional health during this time. Drinking water is especially crucial for white blood cell transport and immune response. This and other forms of self-care
should be your primary focus right now. Additionally, adhering to these measures can reduce stress. Constant stress lowers your immunity to outside invaders, but there’s evidence that self-care leads to a less stressful life.1
And as much as possible, don’t change your routine. Make sure you’re continuing to take your regular medications and supplements, since lower levels of vitamins can leave you susceptible to infection. Good sleep is also important since the body relies on that time to heal and provide a more robust immune system.
Taking care of yourself isn’t just about what you’re putting in your body though. Catching up with friends and family (either through a distanced gathering or video call) can do wonders for your mental health. Focusing on the safety of friends and family can help maintain some sanity since social support networks have been found to ease stress.2
And personal habits like being intimate
with your partner can strengthen your bond.3 Sex
can also boost your mood and make you more productive the next day.4
Just because you’re sheltering in place doesn’t mean you can’t exercise as much as you should. Walking can help burn off excess energy that you might not realize you’re holding in (plus it’s a nice activity to do with your partner, pet or while you take a phone call with a friend. And if you get wrapped up in reading the news, a home workout can help you get out of your head. There’s been proof that exercise protects against the stress experience5
as well as anxiety and depression,6
and also reduces immune system impact,7
so you literally have no excuse.
Embrace moments of sanity
Stress from the pandemic can affect mental and emotional health even if no one around you has contracted COVID-19. And now with many states easing their restrictions, it can be difficult to impose personal safeguards without guidance. Take a moment to remind yourself that you are doing what you can to protect yourself and others. Try to remember that you’re only responsible for meeting your immediate needs.
Much of the current productivity discussion revolves around Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If the bottom tiers that include safety, food, shelter and rest are not being met, satisfying the top tiers will not be feasible until things change. This might feel defeating to accept, but otherwise it will be a constant struggle to have those needs met. Try to remind yourself that you can only do so much, and to be grateful if some of those needs are being met for you.
This concept won’t be the same for everyone, as different people have different needs (some of which may not feasibly be met). Most people will find it difficult to reach for concepts like belonging or self-actualization right now. Coming to terms with this is tough but try to remind yourself that this is normal. Instead, find joy in the happy moments that do exist.
We’ve all experienced something like this last few months: Your partner makes you laugh until you cry; you bond with a random masked stranger at the grocery store; you zone out doing something you really enjoy; you have a socially distanced meetup with a friend you haven’t seen in months. Try to return to those moments when you’re stressed or depressed.
Gratitude can be a powerful tool for mental health, and a break from the chaos will help you see that all of this is temporary. Recognizing and expressing this gratitude can lessen depressive thoughts and improve happiness and health, while also decreasing problematic functioning.8
This process can help improve overall mental health, especially if you are able to make it a habit. Being present for those fleeting moments of happiness will serve to remind you that things won’t always be this way.
Go easy on yourself
Work looks very different than before the pandemic started. It can be hard to stay motivated when you’re trying to work and function in a new way. This is completely reasonable. Try to go easy on yourself right now, be it with work or school or relative self-worth. You’re doing the best you can and that’s all you can do!
Self-care is tremendously important at this time. Methods of comforting yourself are vital in making sure you stay present and content. Even if all of your needs are not being met, being hard on yourself can make the problem worse.
In moments or days when you find yourself down, try to avoid negative self-talk out of frustration. This can cause mental health to spiral out of control and that’s the last thing you need. It’s important to feel your way through
what’s going on, but it’s equally important to know your boundaries and when you get into shame territory. It is easy to catastrophize and automatically go somewhere else when things aren’t going right.
The better route is to attempt to intervene and be aware
of where your mind is going. The concept of cognitive restructuring is often used in therapy to recognize and label negative thoughts, so the ultimate reaction is less negative.9
Try to recognize when you get into this pattern and attempt to pull yourself out of it. But if being mindful doesn’t quite do the trick, try to dive into an activity you enjoy. There’s evidence that hobbies are associated with better health and well-being.10
This new normal most likely doesn’t feel anything like the old version yet, and it’s natural to have trouble adjusting. Try to remember what’s important currently: safe loved ones, basic needs being met and self-care, whatever that looks like for you. References:
- Ayala, E. E., Winseman, J. S., Johnsen, R. D., and Mason, H. (2018). U.S. medical students who engage in self-care report less stress and higher quality of life. BMC medical education, 18(1), 189.
- Pierce, G. R., Lakey, B., Sarason, I. G., and Sarason, B. R. (Eds.). (1997). Sourcebook of social support and personality. New York: Plemum Press.
- Prager and Roberts (2004). Deep intimate connection: Self and intimacy in couple relationships. Handbook of closeness and intimacy.
- Burleson, M.H., Trevathan, W.R. and Todd, M. In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa? Exploring the Relations Among Sexual Activity, Physical Affection, Affect, and Stress in the Daily Lives of Mid-Aged Women. Arch Sex Behav 36, 357–368 (2007).
- Tsatsoulis A., and Fountoulakis S.: The protective role of exercise on stress system dysregulation and comorbidities. In Chrousos G.P., and Tsigos C. (eds): Stress, obesity, and metabolic syndrome. New York, NY US: New York Academy of Sciences, 2006. pp. 196-213.
- Goodwin R.D.: Association between physical activity and mental disorders among adults in the United States. Preventative Medicine 2003; 36: pp. 698-703.
- Fleshner, F Physical Activity and Stress Resistance: Sympathetic Nervous System Adaptations Prevent Stress-Induced Immunosuppression, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews: July 2005 - Volume 33 - Issue 3 - p 120-126.
- Emmons, R. A., and Stern, R. (2013, June 17). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23775470
- Larsson, A., Hooper, N., Osborne, L. A., Bennett, P., and McHugh, L. (2015, December 18). Using Brief Cognitive Restructuring and Cognitive Defusion Techniques to Cope With Negative Thoughts - Andreas Larsson, Nic Hooper, Lisa A. Osborne, Paul Bennett, Louise McHugh, 2016. Retrieved May 29, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0145445515621488
- Pressman, S. D., Matthews, K. A., Cohen, S., Martire, L. M., Scheier, M., Baum, A., and Schulz, R. (2009). Association of enjoyable leisure activities with psychological and physical well-being. Psychosomatic medicine, 71(7), 725–732.