Navigating the New Normal

Sylvia K. Neal, MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in the field of sexual abuse and trauma. She is a Behavioral Health Clinical Supervisor at Casa de los Niños. Here’s Sylvia’s take on how to navigate our new normal.

Eight years ago, my husband was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, the moment my world turned upside down I became a hub for all the communication, director of our household, creating a central command center, to fight the cancer, while raising two young children. I learned a lot about crisis.  COVID-19 has upended our world, something we never could have imagined.  I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned.

Regulate your stress response

Our central nervous systems can activate a fight, flight or freeze response, a physiological response to a harmful event, attack or threat.  We are dealing with a real threat with the coronavirus – threat of health, safety, employment, income, food and supply.  This time of crisis can take a toll on your overall mental health and functioning.  The key is your ability to regulate.  I say the Serenity Prayer, to slow down my breathing, heart rate, and focus my thoughts, which is Mindfulness, the ability to be fully present.  Other activities to regulate include deep breathing, grounding, exercise, and meditation.

Connect to Others

We regulate by way of our attachment and relationship to one another.  We are supposed to isolate, socially distance, and quarantine during this pandemic to flatten the curve, increasing loneliness, which is linked to an increase in negative health outcomes.  Social connection is a primal human need that makes us happy, productive and improves health.  So how do we do this in a pandemic? Get creative about how you connect, and connect often, serve others, write a card or letter to a friend or loved one, face time.  During the eleven months after my husband was diagnosed, I kept a blog in which my goal was to connect others.

Focus Your Mind

There are so many things going on in the news, changes in your routine, work and school, fears and worries, just going to the grocery store can be incredibly stressful for fear of the virus to finances.  In order to function better and be able to focus you will have to develop some skills. Establish a routine, be consistent and foster normalcy; be gentle with yourself, find your own rhythm, take breaks to recharge, focus on what you can control vs. what you can’t and train your brain to focus on the positive and realistic information. While there is frightening information, most people who contract COVID-19 will recover.  Most of all, laugh.  Laughter helps you focus by activating and relieving your stress response, proven to improve overall health.

Communicate!

Attunement, is the practice of opening thought and feeling of another, being aware of and responsive to another, to feel felt.  This is a tough time; we need others to validate our experiences, support us and connect, to figure out how to cope with this crisis, get resources out to one another, discover a new problem and then the solution.  Communication can foster empathy, understanding, insight, morality, respect, validation, and help us to respond better to this crisis. During my husband’s fight against the cancer I not only communicated as much and as often as I could I also blogged the daily events of our fight, which allowed others to join us and feel like they could understand us.

Crisis is opportunity

You have a chance to learn about yourself, others and the world around you.  Quarantine has forced us to stay at home and stopped all activities that used to fill our days.  Even if it seems you are in your darkest hour, you will determine how to move from that place to the next.  Many times, through my husband’s fight against cancer I didn’t believe I could do it. After 11 months of fighting against the cancer, my husband died.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to survive, but not only did I survive, I’ve also been raising two well-adjusted children as a single parent.