Adapting to a “New Normal”
I’ve been inside my house for almost five weeks. It’s much quieter than normal. When I do go out to buy much needed groceries the streets are so quiet that it feels like everybody has been invited somewhere, and they’ve left me behind.
I know it isn’t true, though – I’m just seeing the effect of a total lockdown due to an invisible but damaging little enemy.
The impact of the coronavirus is unprecedented, and many people will experience changes in every part of their lives (if they haven’t done so already). Economies are suffering, workplaces have changed or closed, and people can’t move about and socialise as freely as they once did.
Many are trying to cope with loss, lack of control, as well as stress and anxiety in a VUCA world where fake news and political grandstanding are, unfortunately, still going strong. (VUCA = volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.)
During the past few weeks I’ve repeatedly heard people ask the same question on television, radio, in virtual meetings and calls with friends: what will the “new normal” look like?
Nobody knows how it’s going to be, but most of us will have to consider the following:
A Sense of Loss
Loss is an undeniable reality of the pandemic. Some people have lost loved ones or have experienced losing their health. Others have lost their jobs or businesses, and therefore also their income. There are many small losses too – routines, places, casual meetings with people, listening to music on your commute, difficulty to spend time alone at home with family around, getting a coffee where the server recognizes you and smiles, your early morning swim in the public pool, your book club, place of worship, attending live events, museums… suddenly all wrenched away overnight, some possibly never to return.
While not all losses are equally traumatic, the way the world has changed will cause many people to feel a sense of loss. Their previous “picture” of the world is no longer true – it’s gone and gone with it are certain hopes and dreams.
Help your client understand the six stages of grief namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance and finding meaning. Reassure a person that switching between stages is normal, because the process isn’t linear. It’s to be expected to go from anger to depression, and then to acceptance – only to jump back to anger the following day or week. No two people handle the process identically, and the last thing we want people to worry about is the “correctness” of their individual process.
It’s also helpful to let clients know that finding meaning won’t suddenly make the loss okay or let the sense of loss disappear. In this case, finding meaning might be holding on to newly formed (good) habits or realising the need to get more involved in charity.
Feeling Out of Control
In an ideal world we can control everything that happens to us, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Many people feel devastated when they think of the new normal because they don’t know what it will look like and they can’t control how it’s going to be.
Fighting against what we perceive as the loss of control can seduce us into unhealthy thinking patterns. A person may believe that by fighting hard enough against feeling out of control for long enough, they’ll regain control. We know that’s not true. What’s more, if we focus on feeling out of control it could cause us to panic and make poor decisions.
Teach your clients to understand the value of being in the now. Although living in the present might be familiar advice, it’s often the last thing people think of when they’re panicked and uncertain.
How can they be present? Asking questions is a helpful technique, for example: “What can I do about my situation right now?” Help them explore answers. They might not be able to fix their income right now, but they can update their CV and start sending it out. They might not be able to press the world’s reset button, but they can share one specific thing they’re grateful for every day.
It’s important to let your client understand that focusing on more helpful and productive thoughts is not about ignoring reality. Instead, it’s a technique that teaches the mind to set mini goals that will eventually contribute to longer term goals.
Stress About the Future
There are certain events and situations that will cause most people to experience stress. Although you need a certain level of stress to function optimally, too much stress over a prolonged period could lead to feelings of anxiety, learned helplessness (pessimism) and even depression. Apart from life events, our individual stress profiles are linked to a number of factors including, but not limited to, our relationships, age, social habits and values. All of these cause us to think about the future in a specific way – and values play a major role.
There is truth in the saying that “knowledge is power” when knowledge empowers a person to better understand their own behaviour. Explain to your client that we don’t stress because of a situation as such, but we stress because we’re afraid we won’t be able to cope. Dwelling on this fear of deeply painful emotions causes an unproductive thinking pattern that triggers a stress response in our bodies. This response creates a second unproductive thinking pattern: we get fixated on “needing” a specific (favourable) outcome. Cognitively we know we can’t control the outcome, so we anticipate the emotions of an unfavourable outcome and we start feeling anxious. You develop “monkey thoughts” – they behave like an uncontrollable troop of monkeys that grab, swing, bite and scream, creating havoc as far as they go.
Teach your clients to write down the negative and scary thoughts, and worst-case scenarios. Next, write down possible solutions. Even though the solutions are only possibilities, it will help guide their thinking in a more productive direction. Finding solutions rather than exclusively focusing on problems is like putting a fence around the “monkeys.” They’re not completely subdued, but you limit the amount of damage they can do. The following questions might be helpful in finding possible solutions:
“What can I control?”
“How can I make this better?”
“If the worst happens, what plans can I make?”
“What advantages / talents / experiences / support do I have?”
“In the past, what strategies did I use to cope with major life events?”
Your clients might also find it helpful to explore the link between their most important values and their most pressing anticipatory stress. What are they afraid will or won’t happen, and what can they do to mitigate the consequences?
Keep in mind that planning is in itself a great coaching tool. Having goals and a plan helps people feel more purposeful, more in control and less vulnerable. But remind your client to remain flexible because they might need to change their plans as the situation unfolds.
Lastly, be a dealer in hope and not in despair. Help them see possibilities where they might not see any. And be willing to be believe in their ability to make the best of a new normal even if they if they don’t believe it themselves, because everybody needs at least one cheerleader.
- What’s the picture you see in your mind about the “new normal?”
- Why do people in your circle of influence feel anxious about the new normal?
- When have you noticed people switching between the stages of loss/grief? What happened?
- How can you help people find meaning in the new normal
The blog author is Yolandé Conradie, the Community Manager for UK-based career development company www.mindtools.com. Yolandé is a theo-psychosocial therapist, play therapist, Whole-Brain Practitioner, ecometric assessor, university lecturer, coach and author. With almost twenty years’ experience in coaching, training and facilitation, she has facilitated many courses and team-building events for major organisations in South Africa. She has also presented numerous workshops at the annual International Creativity Conference in Africa. Yolandé has a special passion for being a bridge-builder between people and is devoted to helping people explore and appreciate diversity, in order to understand one another better. She’s also known for tackling tough topics with a gentle touch.