The New Normal?

The New Normal?

5 mental health lessons from the pandemic 

1. Make changes, but go slow

“As we move into a new normal, there is an opportunity to consider how to shape your time and space going forward. To do that well, take some time to reflect on what changes you made during the pandemic that worked well for you and which not so well,” says Nancy Burgoyne, PhD, a clinical psychologist, family therapist, and chief clinical officer at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

Burgoyne says this type of exploration lends itself well to therapy. “A therapist can help you explore your thoughts about how you want to live your life, about what matters to you, what your values are, and how you want to express them. The sands have shifted. It is worth taking time to get grounded.”

When making big life changes, it’s important to proceed with caution. “People are going to move out of this pandemic at their own pace and in very different ways,” Burgoyne says. “I know that people are very tired and worn down, so it’s wise to be gentle with ourselves and to go slow.”

We can’t ignore the role that stress has been playing in our lives over the past year or two. “Adding a global pandemic to the mix impacts all aspects of people’s lives: their social life, their work life, their parenting if they have children, access to healthcare, to leisure activities. It was a very radical, dramatic change,” Burgoyne says.

Job changes, mass grief, and a suddenly unpredictable future have contributed to increased stress. The American Psychiatric Association polled 1,000 adults between March 26 and April 5, 2021. The results showed that 41% were more anxious than last year, and 43% said the pandemic had a serious impact on their mental health. 

There was conflict in the family as well. Some 53% of adults with children and teens said they were concerned about the mental health of their kids, and 16% said they were fighting more with their loved ones. 

“Stress is cumulative, and people’s baseline stress level going into the pandemic was already elevated based on many challenges in the societal and environmental context, such as climate change, racial justice and inequity, and economic distress,” Burgoyne says. 

2. Create space in relationships

When businesses closed their doors and millions of employees switched to working remotely, couples who needed to carve out office space in their homes found themselves sheltering together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That intensified time together revealed ways their relationship could be improved.

Burgoyne says the pandemic amplified whatever problems the couples had before lockdown. “If they had already been struggling before the pandemic, their relationship tended to get worse,” she says.

For many, increased time together highlighted just how important time apart was. When couples had to work from home, they discovered that the time they had spent apart at work had benefitted their relationship, says Elizabeth Simmons, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Loyola Medicine. 

“People didn’t realize how much that separation helped to buffer those minor stresses or minor irritations they have even with people they love,” she says.

If the couple lacked communication skills before the pandemic, the situation became difficult when significant and unpredictable issues arose that the couple had to navigate together. For example, with restrictions in place during the pandemic, one spouse might have been cautious about socializing, and the other might have wanted to be out and about. 

When disagreements need to be hashed out, we all have different ways of communicating our emotions, Simmons says.

“One person might feel overwhelmed and want to take time to think about the problem and cool off. 

Another person might want to talk about it out loud and vent their frustrations,” she says. 

“This might lead to challenges sometimes, but that doesn’t mean there is a problem in the relationship,” Simmons adds. “You have to be mindful of your different styles and talk things through together. Remind yourselves of who you are as partners and your shared values as a couple.” 

On the flip side, lockdown actually improved the issues for some people, Burgoyne says. “A subset of couples benefited enormously from being together because their work-life time had been imbalanced. When they no longer had to commute and attend numerous social obligations, they had more concentrated time with one another. That served their relationship really well,” she says. 

3. Connect to friends in new ways

The pandemic also changed friendships — for better or for worse. “In a lot of cases, friendships grew stronger because of the shared experience,” says Alison Paddack, a therapist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. Other friendships, however, became a source of stress. 

Paddack says that there is no single easy way to handle friendships that became troublesome. In divisive situations — if friends disagree about whether to wear masks or the value of vaccinations — Paddack recommends that people seek some sort of common ground to rekindle the relationship. 

It’s natural for friends to simply drift apart, and it’s healthy to walk away from relationships that are no longer working. Sometimes, taking a time-out from a friendship can help. “Hopefully, there is some kind of foundation that brought people together, something that can stand the test of time, so maybe let things simmer down and in six months or a year reconnect,” she says. 

Women, in particular, were able to count on their friends for understanding and support to help them cope with the vicissitudes of the pandemic, but that was not necessarily the case for men.

“Women tend to communicate more about their feelings and fears. That is socially acceptable, whereas men are taught not to talk about something fearful because they might be seen as weak,” Paddack says. “However, no matter who you are or what your status is in life, everybody is going through something, so maybe we can come out of this whole experience of the pandemic with something positive that will help us connect with people a bit more.”

4. Be kind to your body

Many Americans in lockdown mode abandoned their fitness routines and tried to cope with their stress (or boredom) by overeating. Others were so anxious they lost their appetites. 

In a February 2021 American Psychological Association poll, 42% of adults reported they had gained more weight than they had intended during the pandemic, gaining an average of 29 pounds. Some 18% of people polled said they lost more weight than they wanted, losing an average of 26 pounds.

Instead of feeling ashamed about weight gains or losses, it may be helpful for individuals to accept the changes and realize it may take a while to get back to a healthy desired weight. 

“It took more than a whole year for this to happen, and weight loss or weight gain is not going to happen overnight,” Paddack says. “They should know that they are not alone. Set some reasonable goals, and be kind and patient with [yourself].”

Rogers Behavioral Health reports seeing a large increase in the number of people who needed treatment for eating disorders, as well as substance use disorders and mood disorders. 

During the first year of the pandemic, the organization saw a 35% increase in patients in its partial hospitalization program and a 25% increase in its intensive outpatient program compared to the previous year. The programs treat people for eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and other mood disorders, and trauma recovery. 

“Those figures were not surprising given the amount of stress that has been happening during the pandemic,” says Paula Young, PhD, psychologist and clinical director for Rogers Behavioral Health in Skokie and Hinsdale. 

“We are continuing to explore the reasons why there was such a big uptick in eating disorders during the pandemic,” she says. “Food is one of our basic needs but is also a readily available coping strategy. Eating disorders may have developed or been exacerbated by a combination of increased stress and isolation as people were isolated and away from their usual friends, activities, and sources of pleasure.”

If a person is experiencing disordered eating, they may want to seek help by telling a trusted friend, family member, nutritionist, or professional treatment counselor. Early detection and treatment may help with a quicker recovery.

5. Take time to reflect

In trying to define the new normal, people may want to take a step back and reflect on the ways the pandemic has disrupted or changed their lives. Journaling can help you look back on your experience, as can talking with a clergy member or a trusted friend or relative, Burgoyne says.

If consulting a friend, let them know you would value the opportunity to simply be heard; you’re not necessarily looking for them to swoop in with their solutions to the problem. 

“You may ask the friend or family member if they can give you the opportunity to discuss the issues in an exploratory way without coming to any conclusions,” Burgoyne says. “But they might want to fix the problem or offer solutions, which is not very helpful.”

Often, being heard in a nonjudgmental way can help, 

as can looking back and reflecting how much your life has changed and how you’ve made it through all the changes.

Overall, the evolving message is to take a step back, reflect, and reprioritize as needed. Remember to treat yourself — as well as others — with kindness, as we all navigate our own new normal.

Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2021 print issue. Illustrations by Andrea Fowler