The new normal. Mental health and COVID-19. If you’re wondering how to optimize wellness during the current pandemic, you’re not alone. Over the past few weeks, many of us have shifted to working, learning, grocery shopping, exercising, and hair cutting from home. Instead of spending time in person with friends, family, and co-workers, we talk at our phone and computer screens to stay in touch. The days blend into each other now that we have no places to go or people to see, and we do our best to put some sort of structure to them. And in the time of COVID-19, we consider ourselves lucky if those are our biggest concerns. Some have experienced much more devastating changes due to the loss of jobs, health, and even life. They’ve lost everything, and fear for how much worse it will get before it gets better. This would have all seemed unbelievable just a couple of months ago, and yet, it’s where we find ourselves.
It’s safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed things for all of us, whether it’s simply the loss of our old way of life, or a much more tragic one. And during these times, it can be helpful to understand what we’re going through in the context of grief. When we think of loss in the traditional sense, we think of the death of a loved one or the end of a significant relationship. But our feelings and reactions to this pandemic are much like what we go through when we grieve. We’re grieving the loss of the way things used to be. And just as some people have a harder time working through the grief process, some folks are finding it harder to adapt to the loss of our old way of life. In this article, we’ll explore some of the normal, common reactions to our new reality, and identify some red flags to watch out for. We’ll also offer a few suggestions about how to grieve the loss of the old normal, and shift into the new one, in a healthy way.
Mental Health and COVID-19
Denial, Shock, and Disbelief
Much like a sudden and unexpected death, the drastic changes we had to make during the month of March seemed to happen overnight. We were caught off guard, and a sense of shock and disbelief set in. We were hopeful that schools and sporting events might start back up at best, in a couple of weeks, and at worst, maybe a month. In those first few days, we just couldn’t fathom that we might be in this for the long haul. The idea that this virus would be so contagious that we’d all need to wall ourselves off from the rest of society seemed like something from a blockbuster science fiction film, not from 21st-century America.
But it wasn’t unlike the denial phase of grief, when we find it hard to believe that a loss is real. Imagine the person, for example, who, soon after a breakup, holds out hope for a reconciliation. When a new way of being is too painful for us to bear, it takes some time to absorb the reality of it. And this denial phase of grief seems to have happened to a lot of us during those early days of quarantine.
But denying that things are different keeps us from doing the things we need to do to stay healthy – in the age of COVID-19, physical distancing, or washing your hands, for example. It can also delay our transition to a new normal, and keep us in a holding pattern of sorts that prevents us from developing new routines. Part of good mental health is having the flexibility to create new versions of our old routines when we’re forced to change our daily lives. For example, just because you can’t go to the gym for six weeks doesn’t mean you have to be a couch potato the whole time. Your new exercise routine might not look much like your old one, but the ability to find ways to approximate it is vital to transitioning into your new normal. Taking a flexible approach when shifting each part of your daily routine is one way to make the overall change seem less overwhelming.
As we made the initial adjustment to our new routines, many of us found the extra time relaxing. No more drive time meant we could stay in bed a little longer and skip ironing our pants. Some of us even scrapped the professional look altogether and went straight to sweatpants and ball caps – relaxation at its finest! Hours upon hours at home also lends itself to binge watching TV shows or movies, often snacking while doing so. Downtime is a critical piece of optimal mental health, and many of us weren’t getting enough of it until now. There’s something to be said for our newfound comfort with presenting our “real” selves to the world – long, graying, messy hair, and all. Letting go of our old pretenses around image is a sign of vulnerability, which allows us to connect more deeply with others. Because we’re getting a glimpse into the real world of our colleagues, friends, and family members, we may end up feeling closer to them, because we can see that they’re much like us.
But what happens when the media binges go on so long that we miss sleep or meals, or fall down on the job? Or when one day blends into another so much so that we lose track of hygiene and stop showering or brushing our teeth? These patterns are easy to slip into, and are very common during the grief process. When we’ve lost a critical part of our old way of life, it’s not unusual to get stuck “waiting” for things to return to normal. But putting everything on hold is a signal that adaptation to the new normal isn’t going so well.
Having balance and structure to the seemingly endless days is crucial to maintaining good mental health during these times. You don’t have to create a down-to-the-minute schedule and stick to it; remember that the point is to be flexible during this time. But having some general expectations for each day isn’t a bad thing. It may be helpful to think about this, for example, in terms of physical health, work, and relaxation. A goal might be to aspire to include some work, some rest/relaxation, some movement, and adequate sleep and nutrition. This is just a starting place, though. Think about what’s important to you (spirituality is one example that comes to mind), and consider how that might fit into your daily plan around balance.
Going into Overdrive
What about when your problem is not doing too little, but doing too much? With calendars cleared of extracurricular and social activities, hours are suddenly opened up to devote to those long-delayed household projects. Backs of cabinets and closets have been cleaned out. Lawns are immediately immaculate. And pantries and desk drawers have been organized. Many of us have even taken up new hobbies or returned to old ones. It’s felt good that we’ve been able to make the most of these strange, scary new times by being productive. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But for some, along with all this new productivity came the expectation that they should be doing something fruitful with the extra time, all the time.
It’s not uncommon for people who are grieving to go to such an extreme after experiencing a significant loss. We see a lot of folks who throw themselves into work as a way to cope during the grief process. Staying busy is a way to distract ourselves from painful feelings about the loss. It’s also a way to feel like we’re taking back some control over our lives when it seems like everything has spun out of control. But that busy-ness itself can also spiral out of control, to the point that our mental health suffers. We can start using activities to push down our true feelings of sadness about the loss. Or we can start basing our self-worth on our productivity, feeling guilt and shame when we’re not getting enough done.
It’s important during these times to examine our motives for checking off to-do list after to-do list, and to check in on what emotions we might be using those activities to avoid. Such check-ins with ourselves and others about how we’re really doing with all these changes are vital to maintaining good mental health in this new normal. Don’t be afraid to identify and express whatever you’re feeling, whether on your own through journaling, for example, or with another person. If there’s not anyone in your life with whom you would feel comfortable doing this, please consider reaching out to a trusted professional. From counselors to clergy members, there are people ready to help.
Other Suggestions for Finding a Healthier New Normal
In addition to the suggestions given already, consider limiting time spent reading about the pandemic. It’s good to have information and be up-to-date on the latest recommendations. But given the tragic nature of much of the news these days, information overload can leave you feeling helpless, hopeless, and scared.
Not only can placing parameters on the time you spend consuming COVID-19 information help, but so can giving back. It can easily feel like our sense of control has been robbed from us these days. But helping others, and feeling like you’re really making a difference, can bring it back. Making masks, taking part in a quarantine birthday parade, joining in on a big round of applause for our health care providers, and donating money or food to a food bank are just some examples of ways people have been volunteering their time or resources.
And if you already struggle with stress management or mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, or addiction, or if you’re going through an additional loss during this time, you’ll need to take extra good care of yourself right now. If you need help finding someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Brentwood Counseling Associates. We’d be happy to help you determine who’d be a good fit for your needs and situation. Whether it’s someone in our practice or somewhere else, we just want to be sure you’re getting the support you need during this time.