There is no going back to normal. We are facing the biggest crisis of our generation. Pandemics press the fast-forward button on history, as historian Yuval Noah Harari wrote. Life will never be the same as before.
And I feel very excited about this uncertain future.
This terrifying moment will be over. As a society, we have gone through many pandemics, wars, and natural disasters. Our limits were tested over and over and we were able to thrive by working together.
This is not the end but a new beginning. By trying to get back to how things used to be, we’ll miss out on the lesson. This crisis will leave enduring effects; it’s up to us to make sense out of them.
Let’s welcome the new normal.
The Illusion of Normalcy
It’s okay to feel anxious, stressed, and exhausted. However, don’t let those feelings block the light at the end of the tunnel.
Most people miss life as it used to be. They cling on to an illusion, waiting for this moment to be over and expecting things to get back to normal. However, research suggests that quarantines have long-lasting effects. Our way of life will continue to be disrupted even after lockdowns are over.
Quarantine is the restriction of movement of people who been exposed to a contagious disease. Isolation is the separation of those who have been diagnosed with a virus. What makes this pandemic unique is the lockdown affects everyone, even if they don’t belong to any of those groups. It’s natural that people feel restricted and want to fight back.
The psychological impact of quarantine is brutal. Being separated from loved ones, uncertainty about one’s health, financial instability, and boredom are huge stressors.
People surveyed reported a high prevalence of symptoms of distress. For example, detachment from others, exhaustion, anxiety, irritability, and insomnia. It’s okay to feel anxiety, stress, separation, or exhaustion. However, we shouldn’t allow those feelings to block the light at the end of the tunnel.
Studies from the SARS, Ebola, and swine flu outbreaks show that pandemic effects can be long-lasting.
The countries affected recorded spikes in task-avoidance, people not reporting to work, and stigmatizing those who cough or sneeze. Health workers reported alcohol abuse or dependency symptoms. It took many months for people to return to (a new) normal.
As forces beyond our control dictate our day-to-day lives, many individuals want to fight back. Self-improvement is annoying people; no one wants to be told what they should do during a pandemic, as this Vice article shows. Just as Zoom fatigue is real, instructional videos are leaving people anxious, angry, and overwhelmed.
Most people just don’t like being told what to do and this gets even worse during a lockdown. Control-aversion is a psychological phenomenon that happens when we resent restrictions on making choices and are compelled to reassert our freedom.
“Normal is an illusion. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” – Morticia Addams.
The illusion of control creates a fascinating paradox. We want to control our decisions, to feel in charge. Normalcy makes us feel safe. However, no matter how predictable we want our life to feel, we can’t control the world. You might not like the pandemic, but rebelling against lockdown won’t make it go away.
Normalcy is just an illusion. To adapt to the new normal, we must first let go of limiting mindsets like trying to get back to how things used to be. We assume that we will return to train stations, concert venues, malls, and other crowded places. However, the point is not when, but how.
Major crises shape societies. After World War II, in the wake of the Holocaust, countries recognized the benefits of a world with shared values and established norms. International organizations were created to avoid a worldwide depression, fight war crimes, and protect civilians during wartime, among others.
What will happen between now and then?
Adapting to The New Normal
The way we think, behave, and relate to one another has changed – some aspects are temporary, but many will have long-lasting effects. A quarantine state of mind will shape the new normal.
Not everything will dramatically change, as most futurists predict. But things won’t stay the same either. After the dust settles, the new normal will be a combination of both.
Large gatherings seem like a thing of the past. Music concerts may not resume until 2021. Crowded flights used to be normal, but are now causing social media backlash. Businesses are slowly opening up again, but most people are not yet ready. In the US, for example, the majority believes it’s a bad idea that students return to school (85%) and people to work (65%).
Every crisis accelerates both the good and evil in any society. Reviewing past crises can inform us of what to expect in the near future.
Our ability to feel comfortable around strangers will diminish. However, communal instincts also activate during hardship. We will navigate this tension – a thin line between avoidance and caring.
Studies from previous outbreaks recorded spikes in stress, anxiety, and phobias. However, they also found an improvement in essential habits such as hygiene, diet, or reading.
As Luka Lucic, a psychologist specialized in war trauma, told The New York Times, “People, during times of prolonged, radical change, end up changing.”
Solidarity is on the rise, too. We are all caught in a dangerous pandemic, but still have the impulse to help others. Humans are ‘prosocial.’ We have evolved to be concerned with the greater good, not just to care about ourselves.
As Craig Parks, a professor of social psychology, told The Washington Post, “When you have a choice between acting in your personal best interests or acting in the best interest of the collective, that you opt for the latter. We have to be in order to survive.”
As a society, we were becoming more and more individualistic. Being self-centered wasn’t working in normal times; it definitely doesn’t help during a crisis.
Pandemics trigger fear and selfish behavior, but also solidarity, empathy, and helpfulness. Whether assisting the elderly with their shopping, volunteering in hospitals, or offering services for free, many people are rising to the occasion.
Empathy and compassion are vital motivations for prosocial behavior.
“Helping behavior is a fundamental behavior,” says neuroscientist Charlotte Grosse Wiesmann. “Children of only one year of age show a spontaneous willingness to help and, for example, will pick something up from the floor to give it back to an adult who has dropped it.”
Developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello supports the theory that people are mainly characterized by cooperation. Recognizing other people’s needs and helping them, since we are kids, is an essential step in human development.
Reciprocity also plays a vital role. Like this message health workers have been sharing with people, “We stay at work for you, please stay at home for us.”
Interacting with your barber or bartender won’t be easy if you view them as potential carriers.
A Quarantine State of Mind
We are all going to have to adapt to a quarantine state of mind once the lockdown is over.
Slow down. This is the perfect time for reflection. Let go of trying to control everything. Unwind, unplug, and relax. Use this time to take care of yourself and rediscover the pleasure of going slow. Set up clear boundaries; say no to what doesn’t serve you.
Plan less. During uncertain times, people have tentative plans and focus on the short-term. No one knows for sure how things will be tomorrow. Control less, adapt more.
Live in the present. During times of war, people learn to live in the moment. They had no idea how things would be the next day, or what tragedy occurred the day before. They just learn to focus and enjoy the present. The Christmas Truce during World War I is a perfect example. Unofficial ceasefires along the front ended in ‘enemies’ crossing to the other side, exchanging gifts, and even playing soccer with each other.
Caution, not phobia. Interacting with others won’t be easy if we view them as potential carriers. As you try to rebuild a ‘normal’ life, interacting with your bartender, hairdresser, or waiter can feel intimidating. How will we balance caution with kindness?
Distance doesn’t mean avoidance. Keeping a prudent physical gap of 6ft/ 2 meters is okay. However, that doesn’t mean ignoring other people, not saying hello to a stranger, or being impolite. Don’t let fear remove our humanity.
Protect yourself, protect others. Wearing (or not) a mask has become more of a statement than a safety issue. In the US, a mask-less face has become a stand-in for manliness. However, no one is immune to this dangerous virus. Wear a mask in social places. It’s not just about protecting yourself but also showing that you care for others.
Your freedom ends where someone else’s starts. In World War II, during the infamous bombing, every citizen London turned off their lights when instructed. No one complained that their civil rights were attacked; they knew that darkness would keep the city safe from German bombers.
See the good in other people. Fear can get the worst of people. That’s why people rushed to buy food and hand sanitizer. Be kind and understanding. I’m not saying that hoarding is good, but we can all fall prey to anxiety and stress. Calling out people won’t help them deal with mixed emotions. Offer empathy and kindness instead. One bad behavior doesn’t turn people into evil.
Less is better. Things we thought ‘we had to do’ or ‘we can’t live without’ have been stripped away and we were able to adapt. What old habits or things can we abandon to focus on what matters to us right now?
Offer help. What skills or things can you offer to others in need? Small acts can make a huge difference. You never know how much you can impact others, especially during uncertain times.
Co-create with others. Constraints are powerful conduits for creativity. Italian singers created community despite physical distance. Neighbors played porch concerts and students discovered new ways to celebrate their graduation. The pandemic has created infinite opportunities for spontaneous creative collaboration. The Creating Bolero by The Juilliard School is one of my favorites.
A quarantine state of mind will remain present for the foreseeable future. Anxiety, stigma, and social distancing will profoundly change how we interact with each other for a long time. Maybe forever. However, every time our limits were tested, we grew up as a society.
We are all in this together. It took a nasty virus to remind us that we are stronger when we fight together rather than on our own. Welcome to the new normal.