Let’s try and experiment. Imagine that we all live underground, inside of a cave. It’s not a scary cave, but it is dark. The colors all fade to grey, and we have lost track of time. Though we’re able to survive, we never truly thrive. At the end of the experiment, when it’s time to come out, we’ve become so accustomed to our dark dwelling that some of us aren’t ready to return to daylight. It’s safe here, after all.
This experiment actually took place by a team of researchers in France last month. The Deep Time project studied how we adapt to drastic changes in our living conditions, and it turns out that our ability is quite impressive. But then again, we already knew that from the experiences of 2020. For insights on how to gently emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, read on.
If it feels as though the multiple crises of the past year have left us feeling flat, void of motivation and indifferent, we’re not alone – we’re languishing. It’s not exactly depression, and it isn’t the panic or anxiety that pushed us into action (or paralysis) last spring. It’s also very dangerous. This state is living without a life purpose, the nothing. Its muted colors and going through the motions. It isn’t joy. And it isn’t us.
This Middle Child of Mental Health, as Adam Grant from the NY Times calls it, could keep us in that dark cave. But, so too could growing anxiety among groups such as introverts, people with disabilities and those worried about losing all the social progress made over the past year. As millions of doses of the COVID vaccine are administered every day, a return to normal is closer than we may think. (According to data provided by the Centers for Disease Control’s live COVID Data Tracker, roughly 34.4% of the total U.S. population has been vaccinated as of this week.) We generally have two reactions to this: “Things are returning to normal!!” and “Things are returning to normal...” Living in a cave for the past year, sequestered and quarantined to various degrees, has left some of us feeling less than eager to unlearn some very important lessons. Large sacrifices were made, but silver linings were realized as well.
Before we step back into the light, returning to life above ground, let’s pause and consider some simple steps we can take to help us flourish in the new normal.
Press Any Key to Start
Before we hit the restart button on any major system that’s been powered down for a long period, it’s always best to run a systems check. This applies to our social life as well. Where can we upgrade and improve? Let’s take our time before we dive in, head-first, into every social gathering or accept every personal invitation.
Run Regular Checks
As we gently proceed, we need to give ourselves grace by allowing extra time to reconnect. Although we’re excited to see our friends again and visit public spaces, taking time to check-in with ourselves and ask, “Are we feeling overwhelmed right now?” and “Should I space out these social plans?” are valid questions. Meeting our friends and socializing with large groups is going to be a lot of things: wonderful, exhausting, enlightening, scary, refreshing and hopeful. But it doesn’t have to happen all at once. Try this simple quiz designed to gauge overall mental well-being.
Although many of our friends and loved ones are eager to see us, it’s important to set strong boundaries when it comes to our health. For those of us currently in treatment for or recovering from breast cancer (and other health concerns), our ability to fight the virus may be questionable. Immunocompromised or not, access to the vaccine may limit our ability, still, to reconnect as quickly as everyone else.
Our new normal has the power to be exactly that: New. There’s no rule book or instruction manual that states that we have to automatically return to our lives pre-pandemic or let go of what we’ve learned about ourselves this past year. Our most joyful moments in solitude – the quiet moments, small gatherings, and socially distanced experiences – can come with us into the next phase. It’s still ok to pod as well as be discerning with our time and energy.
Focus on the Flourish
Combating the ‘nothing,’ the languish and the flatness that may be overwhelming us will take a conscious focus. But we can take it one small step at a time. Flourishing is even one of the most studied concepts in positive psychology. In order to cultivate a new normal in a way that builds more flourish – and knocks out the languish – we need to cultivate the tiny positive things that bring us joy each day. Starting small, and eventually building to bigger goals, psychologists recommend the PERMA acronym to help us remember five key areas of focus: Positive Emotions, Relationships, Meaning and Applying strength.
Our ability to adapt to big, scary changes is only one of our key strengths. Like building a muscle, we responded quickly and became more adept at navigating the various challenges that were thrown at us during a very trying time. Now it’s time to let go – to loosen the reins of fear and enter to a new world or normalcy. With kindness toward ourselves, we will emerge from the dark and into the light. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but it’s in the light that we will flourish, again.