Back To Life - The Psychological Journey Towards a 'New Normal'
Dr Jo Daniels is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Chartered Clinical Psychologist at the University of Bath. She works clinically with people with long-term health problems using cognitive behaviour therapy, and conducts research looking at anxiety and psychological distress in medical settings. Here, Jo looks at ways to help maintain emotional wellbeing, as we all try to get used to a 'new normal'.
In these uncertain times it may be difficult to remember what 'normal' life was like, and even harder to relate to the 'new normal' that may lie ahead. This can make it challenging to adjust to our changing circumstances, particularly when our usual coping strategies may not be readily available.
For people living with long-term health conditions, taking regular exercise, socialising and maintaining independence are all important factors in what keeps us psychologically healthy. These have been much harder lately, and this has impacted considerably on our health and wellbeing. Now, we find ourselves facing new changes as life returns to normal, however in many ways this new 'normal' will take some getting used to.
Accept your feelings
Remember that feeling anxious and a little low is common during times like these, and that fear is actually a normal response to these abnormal circumstances. Try to be self-compassionate and allow yourself to feel the complicated emotions that come along with change and uncertainty.
It is important to keep connected to other people, to maintain positive mental health and minimise feelings of loneliness and isolation. It is actually the depth rather than the frequency of contact with others that is important, so keep reaching out and deepening your connections with the people that matter. This can help in maintaining perspective when things feel out of control.
Exercise and relaxation
Regular exercise, relaxation and a good sleep routine help with the regulation of different hormones in the body, helping to reduce excess adrenaline from anxiety and increase positive endorphins. Try to exercise every day in a way that you enjoy, as this will not be sustainable if you find it dull or hard work. Relaxation is important too, so try out different strategies and incorporate these into your day - you will reap the benefits quickly. The more enjoyable activities we do, the better we feel and the more we are inclined to do; which is great for our emotional wellbeing.
What is cognitive behavourial therapy?
Cognitive behavourial therapy (CBT) is a goal-orientated approach that supports individuals towards long term self-management. Put simply, it is based on how and what we think about things, what influences our feelings, our physiology and most importantly, the way we respond to situations, i.e. how we behave. These four aspects interact to shape our emotional wellbeing. CBT considers the way we think about what happens around us as being key to our psychological wellbeing. Often we are inviting people to ask themselves, how can I understand or respond differently in a way that might mean I feel physically or emotionally better? CBT is available on the NHS or privately, and there are also free resources online.
Anxiety may peak when activities resume in some unfamiliar ways, such as returning to a socially-distanced workplace or wearing a face mask to school. For many of us, these first steps will understandably be difficult. The following suggestions are based on CBT and are designed to help us to ease back into our regular activities.
- Approach re-integration in a gradual way. It may be more anxiety-provoking to go straight into a busy hospital, or to attempt your full commute after months at home. Start by walking around the block and build up from there, as you feel more confident.
- Call ahead to ask what will be different, e.g. before a hospital visit. Ask questions to give you a sense of safety (you are unlikely to be the first person asking), and familiarise yourself with any new procedures now in place.
- Prepare in advance and seek support where necessary. Meetings, hospital appointments or the new school year can be stressful in normal circumstances; so within the context of a pandemic it is natural to feel more anxious.
- Remember to accept anxiety as a normal and often helpful response. It reminds us to wash our hands and keep safe distances. Anxiety is likely to peak and pass, and regulation of breathing can help. Be kind to yourself with each new step, and think about what you could do next time around.
- Focus on the positives: these changes represent the lifting of restrictions, increased independence and getting our lives back. Social contact can resume, hobbies may be revisited and needs better met. Whilst precautions may be in place and vigilance necessary, this can be seen as a very positive shift – so keep this in mind to help motivate those first steps back to a normal life.
And finally … it's ok to ask for help!
If you are struggling with your mental health it is important to use the strategies that you find effective. Sometimes however, professional help is needed to support the transition towards doing normal activities again. Please get in touch with your GP or mental health provider if you do need some extra support. Many services are now offering alternatives such as video or telephone calls, which will make things easier. Remember that you are not alone in making this transition, and that life will one day feel normal again.