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Do You Really Want to Return to Your Old 'Normal'?

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistApril 22, 2020

When we encounter a personal crisis, it can feel like everything has fallen apart. As we look at the rubble of our life, we long for what we’ve lost. That’s how I felt after a years-long illness took much of my health and vitality. What I would have given for countless things I’d taken for granted, like being able to work a full day or walk effortlessly up a flight of stairs.

We might have a similar feeling as we face the collective crisis of COVID-19. So much of life as we knew it has been stripped away, like time with our friends, a stress-free trip to the grocery store, being able to work, going to the gym. You might be feeling a great deal of gratitude for those things now as you look forward to getting them back.

But perhaps your feelings about your old life are more complex than pure gratitude and longing. With your life reduced to its foundation, you have an opportunity to see what you’re built on. Maybe you’re noticing things about life as you knew it that you’d like to change, because the former status quo wasn’t entirely satisfying.

That’s how I’ve felt as I’ve regained my strength through a slow healing process. While my life was much easier before I got sick, it wasn’t an entirely healthy way to live. I paid only lip service to self-care, and relied heavily on alcohol to manage stress. I also took many of my closest relationships for granted, and had very little awareness of my spiritual core.

As challenging as my illness has been, it also became an invitation to live in a more thoughtful way. I wanted to return to life, but not to life exactly as I’d lived it. I didn’t want to fall back into all my old patterns, or move mindlessly through my days. I wanted something better.

I suspect that in a similar way, many of us aren’t content to rebuild exactly as things were before the arrival of the coronavirus. Because as good as we had it, there sure was a lot of unhappiness. Anxiety, depression, and suicide were on the rise, and it seemed that more of us than ever were seeking relief from unrelenting stress. Alarming rates of prescriptions for anxiety and depression seemed to do little to stem the tide of increasing misery.

Many people have described finding clarity and connection in this experience of sheltering in place, and even from suffering through a case of COVID-19. There’s nothing like confronting our own mortality to sharpen our awareness of how we want to spend our days.

Consider your own life—what has this crisis brought into sharper focus? Are there aspects of the way you were living that are worth taking a closer look at, and perhaps changing? For example, maybe you’re more aware than ever that time is short and life is uncertain, and you’ve realized that constant work was crowding out the rest of your life. Or maybe you’ve had the opposite realization—that it’s time to redirect more energy into your life’s work.

Maybe the countless examples of selfless service during this time of great need have inspired you to ask yourself what you can do for others. Or maybe you’ve just realized how lovely your life was, exactly as it was, and that you were missing most of it by rarely being in the present. My new ritual of an afternoon walk with my wife and kids has made me want to continue devoting time daily to lifegiving family activities.

Some will use this pandemic to try to get you to make the world the way they think it should be, whether more egalitarian, kinder, tougher, more politically red or blue, less digital. But there’s no one-size-fits-all "Life Lesson” that you should be taking from this experience. As much as we’re all in this together, we’re also experiencing it differently based on social class, personality, family situation, and stage of life, not to mention our personal histories. No one else can tell you what to take from this period. You get to discover for yourself if and how you want to change.

So while this pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption in your days, it may offer a unique opportunity to be the architect of your life, and to rebuild with greater intention and in alignment with your deepest values. This is not about looking for a silver lining in the storm clouds of COVID-19, or finding solace in an easy platitude like “everything happens for a reason.” Few of us would choose suffering if given the choice, even if it has positive side effects. I certainly wouldn’t wish the illness I’ve gone through on anyone, despite the undeniable good that has come from it. 

But life isn’t static, and we have choices in how we live. When things fall apart, you get to have a say in how they’re put back together. The death of the old makes way for the new. Consider taking some time to survey the areas of your life, including your relationships, work, physical health, stress management, and service to others. Find a quiet place and take a few calming breaths to center yourself. Do you have a vision for any changes you’d like to create?

If you’re worried you might slide back into comfortable habits that weren’t serving you well, plan to be accountable to yourself. Write down the commitments you want to make, and find a way to remind yourself of them later on. For example, you could put reminders in your calendar for a few weeks from now, or write yourself a letter about your intentions and ask someone to mail it to you at a future date. Let your present self remind your future self of your commitment to create the life you want.



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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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