After COVID Isolation: A Roadmap to Navigating the New Normal

By Health Psychologist, Nicole Loreto, PhD

Returning to the office? How are we going to live this new normal?

There is no question that COVID-19 has affected our lives in a way like no other. How does one bounce back from a crisis that has affected everyone in the world and live this new normal?

Change affects everyone differently, and there is no one formula or recipe that can get one back to the “normal” that existed before COVID-19, where we felt relatively safe and secure in going back to the office. There are common factors that enable an individual’s capacity to adapt in challenging situations or adversity. I will share some thoughts and ideas that you can use in developing your roadmap as you shape what your new normal looks like, whether you are back at the office or at home:

Resiliency: Bouncing Back

A definition of resilience that has always resonated with me is one from Dr. Andrew Fuller, an Australian psychologist. He provided a simple visual and concept that I incorporated in my mental health literacy program Is It Just Me? which had an objective to build resiliency and foster positive coping skills in high school students. Dr. Fuller says that “resilience is the happy knack of being able to bungee jump through the pitfalls of life – to rise above adversity and obstacles.”

I am not going to recommend you start bungee jumping, but to use this analogy to frame what bouncing back entails. Bungee jumping requires a person to wear a harness, with safety belts and straps that wrap around a person’s body, securely lifts it with a strong cord making one ready for the ultimate jump. Advocates say this extreme sport is excellent in facing one’s fears.

Conditioned by Fear: How to overcome fear once social isolation measures ease off?

Since mid-March, we have been told to socially isolate with those we regularly had contact: families, friends, and colleagues. The risk of passing the virus to others has conditioned us to be fearful. This new virus, one that is beyond our control or understanding, has instilled fear in all of us. COVID-19 has created a negative association with connections we make as a human being. This fear has governed our day-to-day lives.

To be able to live the new normal, we will need to decondition our fear. Studies on anxiety with rats in the laboratory confirm that once an event is associated with fear, the same emotion will occur until you alter the fear response to the stimuli. In our new normal, deconditioning fear starts with recognizing our reactions and deciding what our mindset will be as we go forward.

Recognize your feelings, thoughts, and coping style

Think of your interactions in seeing colleagues in the hallway for that first meeting. Breathe and be conscious of your reactions. It may be awkward at first and remind you of when you were a teenager stressing about having that first conversation with someone you like. If the thought of going back to the office is stressing you out, try a form of meditation such as kundalini, mindfulness, or an online cognitive behavioral therapy program to reframe your thoughts and feelings, which can change your response to fear.

Adopt a positive mindset and a hopeful outlook

In bungee jumping, you need a positive mindset to attempt to jump, followed by an internal locus of control, another dimension of resilient behavior. When you jump, you expect thrill and excitement and the sense of freedom, not confinement.

Taking a positive outlook also changes your brain chemistry. In positive psychology, we know that a negative thought can degenerate into a negative emotion such as anger or fear. If I say “Since COVID I haven’t been able to do anything I enjoy, and I feel stuck,” that thought is not positive, and it may cause a downward spiral into a negative behavior where you cannot do absolutely anything, except watch TV. In keeping that thought, you could begin to feel anxious, sad, and frustrated. People often resort to drinking heavily or getting high to make them forget about how they are feeling about themselves and their lives.

Research by psychologists Fredrickson and Joiner (2002) showed that everyday positive emotions could produce a series of positive psychological processes which they called dynamic-broaden-and-build processes. Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being and feeling good in the future. I always like to ask people to fake a smile (especially when they don’t feel like it). The mere action will produce a change in the facial zygomatic muscles, which will trigger a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing key neurotransmitters such as dopamine, linked to happiness, and serotonin, which is associated with stress reduction. In the end, chances are you will be in a better mood!

Resiliency also involves rewriting negative scripts

This period of self-isolation is a great time to reflect and identify the negative scripts you may have in your life – and those brought on by COVID-19. Think of this passage as an opportune time to reflect on the scripts that drain your energy (“I cannot do that!”) or scripts that keep you from advancing (“I will never be good enough to have that position.”) Take the decision to change these thoughts. That is resilient living.

Write a new script for yourself, one that excites you, that is achievable and paves the way to success. Define realistic expectations and goals for yourself and others. Take a look at obstacles that could block you or interfere with your goals and activate a game plan to face them.

Entertain the art of the possible in this “new” normal: Start a whiteboard

According to the Oxford Dictionary, new means did not exist before. I like the French expression, carte blanche, the freedom to do or to act as we wish. Use this time to whiteboard and set your mind in creating something new about your work or something new you want to explore. By writing down fleeting thoughts, it opens up your mind about the art of the possible and how to get to where you want to go. Like bungee jumping, you are a free spirit, and nothing hinders you!

Whiteboarding is a great tool to connect with colleagues as you transit back to the office. When people are asked to participate and jot their thoughts or ideas on an electronic board, it incites discussion, connection, and reflection. Some people enjoy drawing correlations between points or ideas, while others like to describe their vision. Like resiliency, it’s a process, not an endpoint.

Bungee jumping requires a secure cord tied to a harness you wear to jump. Your harness is made of safety belts and straps that wrap around your body and protect you. Think of the harness as your foundation of family, friends, and connections like your work colleagues. Bungee jumping is about facing fears requiring a positive outlook, an internal focus of control, all features of resilient behavior.

Be Active Physically and Spiritually: Try something new, even if it isn’t bungee jumping!

If you put a healthy lifestyle on hold during this pandemic, it is time to put it in high gear. Stress can take a toll on your mind, and with daily hits of COVID-19 news and its devastating effects around us, it can weigh you down and even make you anxious and depressed. Stressful situations cause the endocrine and sympathetic nervous systems to go in overdrive and release higher levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Physical activity not only makes you get fit, it will also have a positive effect on your brain. By taking action to stay healthy mentally and physically, we maintain an excellent mind-body connection.

Mind and Body Connection

I try to keep my mind and body healthy with a combination of activities from meditation, cycling and nature therapy such as walking in a park or ideally a forest, where I connect with nature. The Japanese have coined a similar activity called Shirin Yoku, “forest bathing,” where you immerse yourself in nature by mindfully using all five senses. Research has shown that these types of therapies not only calm the mind but enhance your immune system, improve your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and lower stress hormone production.

Bouncing Back

In the end, your harness in bungee jumping is not only what protects you from falling to the ground, but to bounce back. Think of the harness as your nurturing environment made of family, friends, and colleagues that form your support system and help you overcome challenges or obstacles. Human beings are resilient, and even with COVID-19, humans will be able to overcome this crisis and become more resilient. Unlike the past, we know from psychological research which factors enhance our ability to manage life’s challenges. Take advantage of the time to shape your roadmap for your return to the office. You will only become more resilient and enjoy the beautiful aspects of life.

You can find great additional resources on COVID-19 and mental health at http://www.theroyal.ca/COVID19.

Nicole Loreto is Senior Advisor to the President & CEO at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.
She holds a Doctorate in Health Psychology, a Master of Science in Communications and Management, and a Bachelor of Social Work. Nicole brings a wealth of experience in health promotion, communications, public affairs, and mental health advocacy including eating disorders and violence against women. She has spent more than two decades working with children, youth, and women to develop healthier life pathways through gaining new skills, confidence, and resiliency. A passionate speaker, she is a fervent promoter of positive psychology, resiliency, and the mind-body connection. As former Vice-President of Communications and Partnerships at The Royal, Nicole created Is It Just Me?, a mental health literacy program which has reached more than 20,000 students, reducing stigma, and encouraging students to seek help when they need it. Nicole and her team also designed two apps, Healthy Minds and Game Ready, which foster mental wellness, resiliency, and coping skills. Nicole sits on a number of non-profit community boards and is a recipient of Ottawa’s 40 Under 40 Award.