The New Normal… What Comes Next.. What is the Next Step?

RANDI ROTWEIN-PIVNICK, M.A., LMFT

I, as well as all those I have spoken to, would have never imagined that we would experience a Pandemic like COVID-19 in our lifetime. For most, our lives have now been turned upside down. We have had to navigate so many of our essential life necessities (work/finances, ability to get food, staying safe, and keeping our loved ones safe and protected) for the first time in our lives. Unfortunately, we are finding that the answers to our questions are often different, depending on from whom it is you are gathering your information from. These times of uncertainty are creating an atmosphere of fear and distrust throughout the world, and it has filtrated down to the simplest level of connection to others.

Nothing as we once knew it is ‘NORMAL’. Most people want to know, what IS the “NEW” Normal, and when will we get there? And, if “STAGE ONE” was the discovery of COVID-19 (how easily and quickly it could spread, and how deadly it could be), and “STAGE TWO” was the STAY-AT-HOME orders throughout the country (and social distancing while outside our homes), then what is “STAGE 3” and what does it look like? Unfortunately, that answer seems to be changing on a daily basis as we get new information (sometimes rather conflicting). Whereas some states are re-opening everything, and others are doing a ‘soft opening’ with different phases, there are still others that remain strict, continuing their original orders to stay home and social distance when necessary to go out. These varying approaches are sending mixed messages to our country and, in my opinion, adding to the confusion, conflict, and anxiety that I am seeing amongst the people I come into contact with through my work as a Licensed Psychotherapist.

I have now been working from home for the past 2½ months. Not only have I never worked from home before (aka: remotely), but I, like most, are trying to figure out what IS normal and what will it look like a week, a month, and even a year from now. Some I know, are returning to their workplace (some with reluctance), where others are still required to work from home, and in fact, many employees have been told that their jobs are now permanently virtual. It appears there is no across-the-board ‘standard’ or “NEXT STAGE’, unless it is titled “to risk or not to risk”. It is doubtful that we can predict what our future looks like, since it appears, the new information and rules change daily.

Since the mandatory quarantine/stay-at-home orders, many have found themselves attempting to work from home while dealing with their children being home 24/7. Additionally, some are also having to navigate homeschooling, all the while trying to be productive in their jobs. Many are also dealing with job loss in addition to navigating taking care of (and providing for), their now confined families. What was once ‘normal’, is no longer so. And, unfortunately, with the ever-changing information, misinformation, and rules regarding social distancing and how to stay ‘safe’, many people are feeling frustrated, angry, and hopeless.

In times of uncertainty, it is only ‘normal’ that people might experience an increase in anxiety and depression. For those that deal with anxiety, having feelings of being in control, lessen the level of anxiety. Unfortunately, with COVID-19, many are feeling like they have very little control of their lives. As a result, I, as a therapist, have seen a significant increase in levels of anxiety amongst my clients, often coupled with increases in depression. For some, the anxiety is increasing as things are starting to re-open (thus, less control when they leave their home and come into contact with others), and employers are beginning to have workers return to work. Some of my clients with pre-existing health conditions that put them at risk, are expressing concern that they may have to make a choice between their ‘safety’(as well as that of loved ones since they will be exposing themselves to others at their workplace) and their financial security. Some will discover that they may have to reinvent themselves in order to feel safe, while others will have to adjust to the new demands that are being placed on them by having to return to work in the current environment, rather than risk losing their jobs.

Having to make these kind of life decisions often takes a toll on ones mental and physical well-being.  Some people are experiencing a lack of identity since they have been confined to their home for months now and the concept of ‘who am I’ is created in a connection of relationships and independent roles. Additionally, many people are experiencing an increase in levels of anxiety and depression as the weeks pass and there is no solution to the problem. Others are exhibiting extreme levels of frustration with weeks and months of isolation or having to cohabitate with family members 24/7, and their perception of no longer having freedom. For some, the frustration of isolation and restriction is now outweighing doing whatever they can to remain safe and healthy, and they are now choosing to ignore safety recommendations and are instead ‘rebelling’ and going against all recommendations for social distancing and physical protection (ie: masks, sanitizing, etc.). As I often see in my practice, people react differently to the same situation. We all have our own individual coping mechanisms, and sometimes these may be different than what might be suggested as the safest and smartest solution.

In addition to increased levels of anxiety/depression/frustration, I am also seeing increases in the struggles between loved ones. I am finding that many of the couples I counsel are now experiencing increased conflict and tension as a result of difference in needs to isolate versus socialize and normalize (in addition to be around each other 24/7 in confined space). Although I try to guide my clients to come to a compromise, this isn’t always possible when one is feeling unsafe by the other’s actions or desire and the other is feeling like a prisoner (and controlled) by the other’s needs. Lack of concrete answers can often make it difficult to navigate the waters of uncertainty, and thus create an environment that makes it difficult to resolve conflict amongst parties. In the end, many people are finding themselves feeling helpless and hopeless as a result of the ‘new normal’. Unfortunately, there has also been an increase in suicide since this all began. Some resources should they be needed: Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.

With so many unanswered questions that can, at times, mean life or death, the best thing to do is to focus on the things over which you DO have control. Now is the time to focus on, and spend time doing, self-nurturing activities that promote positive self-care and thus improved well-being. Make time to exercise (which has proven to lessen anxiety and depression), get plenty of sleep, connect with others (via virtual means or social distancing), and take a break and enjoy your family as well as take time to relax. Stay positive and look towards the day, in the not too distant future, when we will find our “New Normal”.