What is “normal” around here anyway? What the world is experiencing now during the COVID-19* crisis is unprecedented – meaning nothing like this has happened before. A global viral pandemic is just not “normal”. At least, to us.
We long to somehow translate each new development or warning or news report into what our brains can recognize as a return to normality. But there’s nothing about unprecedented events that should feel “normal” to any of us. .
As Dr. David Gratzer, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), told the Toronto Star recently:
“It would be unusual for people if they didn’t feel unsettled.”
Aside from the running updates of scary diagnosis and death stats, here are some of the breaking news reports we’re hearing this week:
- “Citing ‘unprecedented impact’ of COVID-19, Air Canada lays off 15,000 employees.”
- “Weddings, funerals postponed amid unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic”
- “Provincial government will shut down all schools due to unprecedented threat of COVID-19.”
How is anything about those news headlines, all on the same day, “normal”?
Yet so many moments of my own daily life still seem “normal”, and that itself can feel odd. So much seems unchanged, yet everything has changed.
Because I’m retired, for example, I didn’t have to worry about losing my job or income, as millions of others have. When I leave home for my once-a-day walk, the sky is still blue, the birds still singing, the spring blossoms still exploding, right on schedule. All of these things seem “normal” – and that feels surreal.
Freshly-diagnosed heart patients are often advised to get used to something called the “new normal“ as we begin to slowly adjust to the unnerving feeling that our old normal – the normal we knew and loved – is now gone, and we’d better get used to it.
We’re not fatalists. We’re realists. As one of my wise readers astutely observed:
“I now have more balance in my life, because I have to.“
I’ve written about a number of specific studies on this cardiac phenomenon of adapting to the abnormal – ranging from the common experience of being unable to believe that our earliest cardiac symptoms are actually happening, to the utter shock of hearing the diagnosis “heart disease” out loud aimed at you for the first time, and then somehow trying to make sense out of a life-altering condition that makes no sense at all.
An Oregon study, for example, reported in the Journal of Acute and Critical Care looked at how women living with coronary artery disease had tried to find some meaning in what they’d just gone through.(1) Researchers found that meaning actually evolved over time in a process they called seeking understanding.
At the onset of symptoms, all of the women survivors studied described three early responses:
- 1. denial
- 2. being scared
- 3. acknowledgement
Those responses may seem remarkably familiar now to almost everybody who’s trying to come to grips with the reality of the full scale of this COVID-19 pandemic.
We’re now still in relatively early days yet of this pandemic, which is why so many local, regional or national governments (and essentially all of Fox News) have not yet officially endorsed severe restrictions like physical distancing* and self-isolation* to help prevent the rapid spread of this virus over the next months (not weeks). These people are still mired in denial, unable to think straight or act decisively despite the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence.
What helps us when nothing seem normal?
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health offers us practical tips for managing the stress and anxiety related to this new normal of COVID-19, along with this observation:
“High levels of anxiety and stress are usually fueled by the way we think.
“For example, you might be having thoughts such as ‘I am going to die’ or ‘There is nothing I can do’ or ‘I won’t be able to cope.’ These thoughts can be so strong that you believe them to be true.
“However, not all our thoughts are facts; many are simply beliefs that we hold. Sometimes, we have held these beliefs for so long that they feel like facts.
“So how do we know if our thoughts are true or are just beliefs we’ve grown used to?
Here are some ways suggested by CAMH that may help us work through and challenge our worries and anxious thoughts during this anything-but-normal time:
1. Start with catching your thoughts. When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, stop and write down what you are thinking. There may be more than one thought going through your mind when you are feeling anxious. (Hint: Your thought might sound something like ‘What if …’ or ‘I’m worried that …’)
2. Once you have identified a thought, challenge the thought. Ask yourself:
- Is this thought true?
- Is it 100% true and always true?
- What is the evidence for the thought?
- What is the evidence against the thought?
- Has the thing I’m worried about ever happened before?
- How did I cope?
- What was the end result?
- If you find it hard to let go of worrying, ask yourself, “What does worrying do for me? Is worrying actually helping me solve a problem, or is it keeping me stuck and feeling anxious?”
3. After working through these approaches, see if you can come up with a more balanced thought. For example, “I am elderly, and so many older people are getting extremely ill. I could die from this” could be replaced with: “I am elderly, but I am also taking all of the recommended precautions, and I am taking steps to stay healthy. I am extremely likely to get through this and be fine.”
Dr. David Gratzer at CAMH also suggested two things that I too have been trying to do each day:
“Sticking to a regular schedule and exercising regularly can act as a coping mechanism. People should gravitate to things they find comforting.”
Stay safe, my heart sisters. . .
Q: What do you find comforting while trying to make sense of unprecedented times?
1. Anne G. Rosenfeld et al. “Meaning of illness for women with coronary heart disease.” Heart & Lung: The Journal of Acute and Critical Care, March–April 2000, Volume 29, Issue 2, p79-154.
–COVID-19: the name of a disease caused by the Corona virus, a family of common viruses responsible for the common cold and other more serious conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).
–self-isolation: staying at home and monitoring yourself for symptoms, even if mild, to help prevent the spread of disease in your home and in your community.
–physical (or social) distancing: staying at least six feet (2 metres) away from other people to lessen the risk of spreading the virus through coughing, sneezing or speaking.
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote much more about how heart patients can manage the inevitable changes brought on by health crises in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).
♥–CardioSmart (a report from the American College of Cardiology) on how COVID-19 affects heart patients