You have probably heard the phrase “the new normal” as people are working to adjust to recent changes. As a mental health professional I wanted to say, this is not the “new normal,” in fact this disruption to our lives is a form of trauma. Yes trauma, not something to be afraid however something to be real about. Trauma is defined as anything that disrupts your life and creates a sense of fear, real or imagined. Trauma is a lived experience that upsets physiology (our bodies) and increases our mental/psychological stress when it doesn't feel safe. Our body and brain are constantly scanning for danger, this is what has kept us alive for generations.
Unpredictability and the unknown equals danger to our brain and body.
Right now, the disruption to our routine, the uncertainty and unpredictability of our environment and the information we are receiving is disrupting our emotional balance- creating stress. This increased stress and chaos over a prolonged period of time is trauma. We don’t want this time to be “the new normal.” Our bodies are pretty amazing at handling stress and developing resilience to promote healthy functioning when in a time of stress. Our current experience with the pandemic is not allowing for us to be in denial or use our former distractions to not face our truth.
Life suddenly got very real, very fast.
We also know what to do to help lessen the impact of this trauma on us and our families. We need to be focusing on the right physical and mental strategies during this time we can further develop our own resilience and help our children to build themselves up as well.
First, we must be honest and real with ourselves about how this stress is impacting us. This stress is temporary, however, lengthy. We don’t want this to be our new normal, we want this to be a moment in time, in our lives, that we survived and thrived. Being honest with the impact of stress on yourself and the family will help to guide you towards the next steps.
Second, create a daily routine that mimics your “normal” one. Get up at the same time, take a shower, dress normal, eat, do work/chores/school with a break for lunch, do something physical- yoga, stretching, walking etc. In the afternoon, take a nap, do some meditation or be creative, bring those hobbies into focus! Have dinner, interact socially with friends online or check on family members using video platforms. Relax, watch a movie, read a book, and go to bed at a regular time. Repeat!
Remember children went from a lot of routine, structure and daily contact to very little routine, structure, and contact- this all to nothing is dramatic and stressful. Set up flexible daily routines, education is important however, mental health is necessary. Children cannot learn when they are under stress and their bodies are in survival mode. Routine, play, connection and touch will do wonders for you and your child during this time. The goal should be maintaining reading skills and doing some math facts. Being with the family and experiencing new things daily is education too.
Third, pay attention to your mental health and that of your family. There are several apps that help with meditation, check one out. Continue to have your mental health appointments via telehealth. If you don’t have a provider at this time, look into one now, as there may be a waitlist. Children need to know social and emotional health is important and necessary for well being. Start talking!
Communication is key to connection and connection is what humans need right now. Be honest with children. Validate their emotions and experience and DO NOT tell them they are “fine” or “Ok.” Tell them instead, “we got this,” “ we know how to stay healthy,” “we are doing what we need to do to make this confusing time pass.” Acknowledging the fear, confusion, and stress to children lessens their need to act those emotions out. Children mirror off of their parents, so if you are stressed they will be stressed. Communicating about our feelings during this time and giving reassurance of knowing what to do, will increase connection and strengthen the bond between you both.
Fourth, PLAY! During stressful times the best way to mitigate the impact of stress on the body is to PLAY! Play brings out the neurotransmitters in our brains and bodies that directly counter the stress hormones. So, engage in activities that bring joy to your life! Play games, get on the ground and let your child lead the play, watch comedies, find the ways to make yourself and those around you laugh! If you feel the need to be on social media, redirect your searches to joyful things like cute puppies, funny cats, or other silly activities that will make you giggle. A good sense of humor and actions of silliness will directly counter your stress in a healthy and productive way. See what a different direction can do for your mental health.
Fifth, have empathy and self compassion. No one is going to “get it right.” We have to be willing to practice flexibility and to show ourselves empathy for feeling stressed, for not being perfect all the time, for being tired, and choosing netflix to zone out and relax some. We are all being forced to be vulnerable, to acknowledge our struggles and be real about our anxiety. We are all doing the best we can with the amount of change and stress we are encountering everyday. With this vulnerability we can support ourselves and each other by taking a deep breath, and responding rather than reacting.
Remember, reacting is what most of us are doing right now. Slow down, stop and think before acting or speaking to improve your odds of being heard.
The world and the human beings on it are in high stress and chaos of the unknown right now. This is not the “new normal” this is the period of time in between before we get to the other side. Taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally will give us the best chance for thriving after the storm of Covid19.