Ask a Therapist: How to Live in a Turbulent New Normal

by Liz Covey, LMHC

Question: When I go back out into the world, I find myself exhausted, forgetful or even at times excessively irritable. I don’t understand what is going on. Is this normal after a long time in quarantine? Or should I be worried that something is really wrong with me and seek help?

Dear Reader,

I have been hearing versions of your question a lot lately. It reminds me of our adjustment period way back when all this all started one thousand emotional years ago (aka 16 calendar months in COVID-19). However, now we talk less of shock, and more about how to find a reliable rhythm inside more uncertainty.  Until just this week many of us were imagining we were nearing the end of the pandemic. Alas, with the unvaccinated population holding fast, and the delta variant on the rise, we can see with weary eyes what’s likely to come.

So once more we are stymied by this crisis, and that raises the specter of a truly hard question. An almost unbearable one: Are we ever going to get back to something we can call normal again?

Though I’m not well-versed in marketplace analytics, I came across something recently from the business world that struck a chord. In the thick of the 2020 pandemic shutdown, Bain & Company published an article called The “New Normal” is a Myth: The Future Won’t be Normal at All, in which Hernan Saenz et al. reported that “the biggest shift in company fortunes, for good or ill, happen coming out of downturns.” These, they say, offer “moments of truth when management teams can transform and reset their companies.”  

Perhaps the same is true for us individually, as our psyches adjust to massive pattern shifts, a trend we are beginning to painfully recognize will not end anytime soon. Many people are noticing, just as you have, Reader, that they are experiencing severe swings in their personal economies of mood or behavior. If this is a true parallel — a company’s degree of success and personal mental stability coming out of a crisis — then maybe we should take a closer look at what these business experts advise for companies as they move forward into markets that will be be forever changed by the effects and lessons of the COVID-19 era, however long it lasts.

Here are some tips on this unfamiliar post-COVID-19 reality from the Bain & Company authors (reverse-engineered to fit our mental health focus):

Prioritize Agility, Innovation, and Resourcefulness 

COVID-19 taught us that the way things have always worked does not matter in the case of a global pandemic. Perhaps it’s wise now to resume life as if this continues to hold true. This might look like a more creative approach to work, home life, and daily schedules. It also might mean we forevermore wear masks and apply hand sanitizer in high-density public places or prefer online meetings to climate-harming airplanes. Or that we reconsider the role of the police in addressing mental health calls. Things which all seem to be smart improvements, knowing what we do about health, justice, and the environment.

Have a More Flexible Framework & Think Outside the Box 

The advent of all professionals working from home this year or “essential workers” receiving hazard pay during the height of a health crisis taught us how quickly and easily we can adjust our circumstances to what the times require. Would we not do well to continue this trajectory going forward? Wouldn’t a higher priority on individual needs (including childcare and mental health) be in all our best interests, even once COVID-19 no longer looms as a true public health threat? (Tennis champ Naomi Osaka and Olympian Simone Biles are already showing the way.)

Simplify Things & Discard What Doesn’t Work 

This past year and a half has been a study in radical shifts of all kinds: in how we socialize, recreate, live our home lives, and work. In this grand experiment, much has been tossed out the window — some for ill (like public arts events) and some for good (like workers stepping away from underpaid fast-food work). Could the lessons of this era include raising standards to prioritize and nourish that in our lives which is life-giving, and to reject that which saps it? Any mental health professional can tell you that we are an overworked (read: stressed!) culture. A positive outcome of this strange period in our history might be to spend time perspective-taking on how we each allocate our resources of money, energy, time, and focus. 

Advance, Retreat, Adapt, Repeat 

In this time we have been forced to try new things, and learn what does and doesn’t work. One common example is family or friend Zoom parties, which became a trope of early quarantine experimentation. As each group found their footing, some people found joy in them and others only the oft-quoted fatigue. Suffice it to say there is no formula for what will suit everyone. But pursuing new ideas, stepping back to reflect on how it’s going, and reworking the model to fit one’s needs is a good idea for updating old things to new. That method sure beats the “business as usual” approach to things, on which this country has been too reliant for too long (for evidence on how ineffective this can be, see: Police Tactics in Public Disturbance Calls in your local municipality.)

Expect Continued Turbulence and Call That Normal From Now On 

It is a very American notion to expect nothing to ever go wrong. However, the expectation of safety and “normalcy” has never  been the human experience. And recent shocks to the American psyche — the 2001 attacks of Sept. 11, climate-induced wildfires, or COVID-19 —  should amply prove to us that we are not immune. Wouldn’t we do well then to heed the call of the wisdom traditions, such as the first Buddhist precept that “All Life Is Suffering” or the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam ( the world is broken and in need of repair) and move through our lives from that starting point? We are social animals who live in a fragile ecosystem. We have droughts, violence, floods, cancer, poverty, earthquakes, and plagues. These are not things which are antithetical to life, these are the very things that make life most vivid and precious to us. 

With the little information I have about you, Reader, I cannot answer the question of whether you need help. What I can say is this: You are a vulnerable human being who is living through an incredible time of upheaval, discord, and (for many) despair. The above advice is useful for us all today, as we are now tasked with updating our personal and cultural systems to adapt to the great shifts already underway. But should you (or anyone) need more help with these adjustments than you can access in strength within, or in your immediate support system, reach out to someone in your family, social group, religious community, or to a professional whose role it is to listen, support, console, or counsel. To loosely quote Mr. Rogers: “In the event of a tragedy, look for the helpers. There are always helpers.”

Best wishes to you, Reader. And to us all, as we keep on keeping on, and as we adapt, grow, and change, through this or any other crisis we encounter in this one precious lifetime. For although we might not achieve a sense of normal anytime soon, we are also opening a door to the possibility that what is to come could far exceed just that.

Counselors Roy Fisher and Liz Covey answer readers’ questions for the South Seattle Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist.” Have a question about a relationship? Wondering about the struggles of being a parent? Others likely have the same questions and Covey and Fisher bring years of professional experience to provide their insights.

If you have a question, please click here and let us know. We will select two questions each month to answer. The form requires no email address or identification and is completely anonymous. If you are in crisis or in immediate need of care, please contact Crisis Connections at 1-866-427-4747.

📸 Featured image: “Walking The Ledge Part IV” by StarMama (under a CC BY 2.0 license).

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