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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Finding a New Normal During COVID-19

Four lessons to help you survive and thrive amidst the pandemic.

Tobias Rademacher/Unsplash
Source: Tobias Rademacher/Unsplash

This past Halloween was unlike any other because of the pandemic. With holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas nearing, it’s important that we find new ways to not just survive, but thrive during COVID-19. Fifteen years ago, residents of the Gulf Coast found themselves also facing hardship as the Mardi Gras holiday approached.

I had just moved to South Mississippi six days before Hurricane Katrina struck our community. In 2005, months after the photos and videos featuring the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina had faded from the headlines and were muted from the airwaves, those of us living in South Mississippi continued to pick up the pieces of the historic disaster. In fact, six months after Katrina struck, I was part of a crew that was caring for the emotional and spiritual needs of survivors.

After a long day of heart-wrenching conversations, I was invited to attend a potluck dinner with a group of local survivors. The residents of this particular community had once lived in a prestigious neighborhood lined with stately colonial homes that had been passed from one generation to the next.

However, in March of 2006, many of the community’s residents were still living in FEMA trailers.

As our group walked toward a makeshift gathering place where we’d share a meal together, I surveyed the trailers that had been decorated in bright purple and gold in anticipation of Mardi Gras. Some of the horizontal cylinders that had become “home” were lined with glowing green and purple lights. Giant sparkle-covered masks and other seasonal decorations were plastered on the otherwise blank exterior walls. In true southern fashion, some had even built out small front porches off the front of their FEMA trailers, complete with Mardi Gras beads hung amongst some trees still standing.

The community had celebrated before Katrina, and they were celebrating after Katrina.

After Katrina, I had observed that the ones who learn to endure and keep living during hardships are those who are able to establish a “new normal.” I found the same to be true during this time of pandemic. And while the process of finding a new normal during COVID-19 will look different for everyone, here are a few strategies that can help.

Continue Traditions. Whether you’ve lost your home or your health or your happiness, you choose to keep living by continuing the traditions that grounded you before COVID-19. For Gulf Coast residents, this meant that purple, gold, and green pennant flags flapped in the wind. For some, it might mean maintaining a Friday evening tradition of “pizza night.” And for others, it might even mean gathering around an iPad to watch a sports game together. Maintaining old rhythms helps us rediscover normalcy.

Create New Rhythms. My disaster work taught me that life rhythms are important not just to preventing burnout among first responders, but are also key for the rest of us wanting to live well through such a time as this. I regularly tried to remind disaster relief professionals and volunteers responding after Katrina to learn to pace recovery efforts: to think of disaster response and recovery as a marathon, not a sprint, because those affected by the hurricane needed them now, but they’d also need them later. And if they were going to be able to help them, they needed to have enough in the “tank” to still be effective. For many, this meant learning to create new life rhythms, creating new traditions helps establish a new equilibrium.

Serve Others. Many of those I saw clearing debris and putting up fresh drywall were those who’d suffered loss themselves. While they were still rebuilding their own lives, they were helping neighbors rebuild theirs. When we’ve suffered loss, offering ourselves to others helps us continue to be the people we were before disaster struck. Sometimes it may mean the physical work of restoring dwellings. Other times it might mean offering respite to a family caring for an infant or a person with a disability on top of the disaster they’ve suffered. And it might be as simple as the mac and cheese you bring to the potluck. Serving others takes our eyes off of our own suffering as we care for those around us, even small gestures can make a big difference.

Carve Out Time to Do What Is Life-Giving. When disaster hits, life can feel chaotic, and our energy is used up fighting fires. But when the flames die down, it’s important to make space to do some of the things we once enjoyed doing. After Hurricane Katrina, one woman with limited physical endurance switched up her running routine with a friend to create a regular weekly walk together. A man who enjoyed carving used fallen limbs to continue his hobby. Someone else found a way to keep a regular coffee date with her sister. Doing what you love keeps you grounded after a disaster. I realize that socially distancing can complicate our ability to connect with others. But as best as you can, try and stay active and do what is life-giving. Perhaps you might not be able to meet in person, so instead considering how you might still enjoy your favorite cup of Joe over Zoom with a friend.

Embrace the “Now." When I encourage survivors of disaster to, with the best of their ability, do what they can to find ways to return to doing what they had done prior to impact, I don’t mean you should throw COVID-19 precautions out the window—quite the opposite. The key phrase here is “with the best of their ability.” Those celebrating Mardi Gras understood that it is just as important to embrace the “now”—regardless of how difficult it may be—as it is to be hopeful for the future. That is, we need to continue to be safe, practice social distancing, wear masks, and follow other recommended safety guidelines. Don’t expect everything will return to the way it was before the pandemic anytime soon. But I’m convinced that people do benefit from carving out calm in the chaos. So, no matter what you might be facing, purpose to discover your new normal.

Maybe even with twinkly purple Mardi Gras house lights and beads.

More from Jamie D. Aten Ph.D.
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