Saturday, March 13, 2021

The 'New' Normal Post-Covid - Are YOU Ready?

If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. If you put a frog in tepid water and slowly raise the heat, it will boil to death. - Unknown

Photo Credit: Nick Fewings

Covid-19 has been raising the heat on all of us for a year. Stress, depression and anxiety have paralyzed millions. Personally, I've battled all three. As someone who lived much of my life in a state of chronic stress, I very quickly became that frog again and didn't realize it until I was almost ready to be served as an appetizer. I was sleeping either too much or too little, watching the same ten pounds turn my bathroom scale into a seesaw, and despite having almost twenty years of teaching experience under my belt, there were days when I just burst into tears because virtual teaching is just. so. hard. Even though I had Covid-19 and its accompanying brain fog, I've also had what Ellen Cushing, writing in The Atlanticcalls the Covid "fog of forgetting" that has crept into our brains simply from living in quasi-isolation for so long:

Everywhere I turn, the fog of forgetting has crept in. A friend of mine recently confessed that the morning routine he’d comfortably maintained for a decade—wake up before 7, shower, dress, get on the subway—now feels unimaginable on a literal level: He cannot put himself back there. Another has forgotten how to tie a tie. A co-worker isn’t sure her toddler remembers what it’s like to go shopping in a store... 
“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” said Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” Living through a pandemic—even for those who are doing so in relative comfort—“is exposing people to microdoses of unpredictable stress all the time,” said Georgia Tech neuroscientist Tina Franklin, whose research has shown that stress changes the brain regions that control executive function, learning, and memory. 
That stress doesn’t necessarily feel like a panic attack or a bender or a sleepless night, though of course it can. Sometimes it feels like nothing at all. “It’s like a heaviness, like you’re waking up to more of the same, and it’s never going to change,” [Community College Professor Jen] George told me, when I asked what her pandemic anxiety felt like. “Like wading through something thicker than water. Maybe a tar pit.” She misses the sound of voices. 
“We’re trapped in our dollhouses,” said Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist from Ottawa, who studies video games. “It’s just about surviving, not thriving. No one is working at their highest capacity.” (emphasis mine)

I've only written six blog posts in the past year. My brain just hasn't been functioning the way it used to. I've been too tired, too overwhelmed. I would start to write, but lose interest. Couldn't put a complete thought together. All I wanted to do was get in bed and binge-watch... anything. 

But, life is changing! The winter of our discontent will soon be over. With vaccines rolling out in ever-increasing numbers, we will soon be dining indoors, gathering in large crowds—and hugging! A return to normal? No. There will never be a 'return'; only a moving forward to create the new normal. And that process is bound to stir up all sorts of new fears as well. 

In her March 9th opinion piece in The Washington Post, Dr. Lucy McBride calls this FONO—Fear of Normal:

Trauma has a way of doing that to us. We’ve lost more than 500,000 lives in this country alone. We’ve suffered unprecedented economic, social and emotional upheaval. And regardless of our individual pandemic experience, each of us has faced some level of loss, grief and despair...
But now that we’ve adjusted to pandemic life — with its inherent struggle, stress, social isolation, emotional toll and hidden silver linings — it’s understandable to experience emotional whiplash even as trauma recedes.

When patients come to her with these symptoms, she helps them assemble a toolkit to help them cope which can include "breathing techniques, guided meditation, regular exercise, prioritizing sleep and spending time in nature, all of which tamp down stress hormones." 

My district is going back to full in-person teaching and learning later this month. I sometimes catch myself wondering, Have I forgotten how to teach? Will I be able to do it?  Yes, I tell myself, you will! It's like riding a bicycle. But while my mind knows this, my emotions are sending up flares and I have to pay attention. 

Instead of trying to fight the stress, anxiety and fear, I leaned in. I didn't berate myself for sleeping more, scrolling through Facebook more, watching more TV, and yes, eating more. But, I also started to read books more, meditate more and spend more time in nature, and slowly but surely, the fog has started to lift. Pounds can be lost, exercise can be done, activity can ramp up in a time that is right and gentle. There is no stopwatch, no one is breathing down my neck to 'fix' everything that went 'wrong' in this past year—except me.

While flinging open all our doors and having big parties just as the warm weather arrives sure sounds a lot more exciting and fun than meditating, we must remember that those tools help build and support the infrastructure that is our physical and emotional wellbeing, without which, we are running on pure adrenaline. And once that adrenaline is gone, we are left feeling shaky and weak. 

So, ease into this new normal. Be gentle with yourself in the coming months. As tragic as this past year has been, we are being given an opportunity to redefine what we want our futures to be. How will you write yours?

Photo Credit: Alfred Schrock

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