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How to Adjust to the ‘New Normal’

As millions face changes brought on by the pandemic and social distancing, an expert offers tips to cope.

With most of the country nearing two months of sheltering in place, many of us have suddenly been forced to adjust to a ‘new normal’: parents home-schooling their children, families or roommates suddenly isolating in cramped quarters, donning a mask when leaving the house, and wiping down groceries after a stress-filled visit to the store.

While the changes have been jarring, it’s important to remember the big picture.

“The world is facing a pandemic and in many places across the world, people are following similar lockdowns, shutdowns, or social distancing,” says Dr. Robert Leahy, an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the author of The Worry Cure. “We have to look at this by putting in perspective that to win the war against COVID-19 we need to make sacrifices and develop a coping mindset.”

Dr. Leahy, a national expert in cognitive therapy, shares his advice on how to cope with the challenges of so much change at once, and how to view the situation through a lens of acceptance.

Give yourself a break

One of the most important things you can do is accept that a new reality should come with a different level of expectations. For example, you’re not going to perfectly juggle remote work with home schooling and child care. “Lower your standards so much that if you fall down, it’s a step up,” says Dr. Leahy. “It’s like if you used to be able to run a 7-minute mile, and now someone tells you to strap a 50-pound bag over your shoulders and do the same thing, it’s going to take you an hour and a half.”

If your children are making noise or interrupting, or you are having trouble staying on top of everything and focusing, normalize that. “You can say to yourself, ‘That is what I would expect right now when I am trying to multitask everything without outside help and during a pandemic,’” says Dr. Leahy. “Anticipate the noise and the interruptions and remind yourself they are not such terrible things, but simply inconveniences.”

For those frustrated by the new limitations on everyday life during quarantine and the ‘new normal’, Dr. Leahy also suggests resetting expectations and identifying what you can do rather than focusing on what you can’t. “A lot of frustration comes from inflexible expectations. We may have an expectation that we should be able to do everything we did before, and as long as we hold on to that expectation, we are going to be frustrated,” says Dr. Leahy.

Consider other things in your life that you expected or hoped for but didn’t pan out, and you survived. “Change the expectation to match reality, realizing it’s not catastrophic,” says Dr. Leahy. “Early Americans from hundreds of years ago wouldn’t even understand the concepts behind some of the luxuries we might miss right now. We are fortunate to even have the things we miss, and maybe we’ll appreciate them even more when they return.”

Be kind and practice acceptance

When hunkered down in close quarters with a lot of stress, Dr. Leahy recommends a “protocol of politeness,” particularly when it comes to your partner or significant other. This is not the time to air every frustration. “Treat your partner like a total stranger you want to please,” he says. “Try to be thoughtful, polite, compassionate, and rewarding. A compliment and a ‘thank you’ can go a long way.”

Being more accepting of family members will help you keep peace in the home, but it’s just as important to accept your situation and the ‘new normal’ as a whole. This doesn’t mean resignation, but rather a realistic observation and a coping mindset, according to Dr. Leahy. “If you’re in northern New England in the middle of winter and it’s 20 degrees outside, you have to accept that. It wouldn’t make sense to say, it shouldn’t be this way, it’s terrible. Accepting the situation is recognizing reality and putting on a warm coat or going back inside.”

People can recognize that it is simply not possible to be on top of everything right now — but they can work to accept the ‘new normal’ as it is and cope as necessary. “Methods of coping can be problem-solving, sharing things, cheering people on, learning from the experience, reevaluating priorities, and reflecting on how people coped with far worse in the past,” says Dr. Leahy. “Resilient people reevaluate their expectations and then focus on new goals.”

Dr. Leahy’s Ingredients for a Coping Mindset

View life as a narrative

Dr. Leahy suggests looking at life as a series of chapters in a book, which can provide a sense of control and agency in what can feel like a helpless situation. “If you look at life as a series of chapters, this chapter is objectively a hard one. But we can adjust our expectations and write a story about how we cope with this chapter to make it as good as it can be,” he says.

Chapters also have an end, which can help you from feeling engulfed in the moment. “This isn’t the chapter we’ll always be in, and not all chapters have to be wonderful,” he says.

We can even view this chapter as a test or philosophy seminar. “Imagine a supreme being we’ll call ‘Chaos and Uncertainty,’ who decided to throw us some really strange stuff right now,” he says with a laugh. “How will we cope? What will we miss and what do we value?”

Each day you can decide to make positive choices, reflect on your values, and cheer on the front-line heroes. “The chapter is up to you,” says Dr. Leahy.

Robert Leahy, Ph.D., is an attending psychologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine. He is the director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy NYC.

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