“New normal.” It’s a phrase we’re hearing more and more as the US begins to open up and resume operations—at least partially. This tentative move toward some sense of normalcy means many of us will face significant change in the weeks ahead. Whether we’ve been working the whole time (most likely with lighter patient loads) and are looking ahead to busier schedules—or we’ve been laid off and must now start looking for a whole new job—we’re all facing a new reality that looks different from the one we were living in back in March. Whatever your circumstances have been, acclimating to this “new normal” can come with challenges.
And while there’s no magic formula to make things feel comfortable, here are some tips to establish a sense of normalcy and calm as we look toward the future:
1. Prioritize self-care.
The recommendation to take some time for yourself is, in many ways, so painfully obvious that it’s hard to even say it. But, there’s a reason why we need to hear this so often. It’s quite easy to let our families’, friends’, patients’, and even employers’ needs supersede our own. As flight attendants always say, we must put on our own oxygen mask before we can be of much help to anyone else. So, don’t feel guilty for taking some time each day to focus solely on your own physical and mental well-being. Even 5–10 minutes of any of the following can make a huge difference in our state of mind:
Your gym might be closed, but there are lots of online fitness classes you can explore, many of which are offering discounts and even free sessions. Picking a joyful and unusual way to stay active, such as dance, can lift your spirits immensely.
There are many ways to meditate. Whether you complete guided meditations on an app—or opt for simpler “box breathing” techniques—calming your autonomic nervous system is an effective way to make each day seem more manageable.
Any Activity You Love
Whether it’s reading, having a glass of wine (or two), watching a movie, or taking a bath, indulging in an activity you enjoy can be a great reminder of life’s simple pleasures.
2. Take up a hobby.
These days, it can be tempting to spend every moment of every day working, stressing about the lack of work, fretting over fussy kids, or consuming some sort of cripplingly depressing news. Many restaurants remain closed, and forget about going to a theme park, comedy club, religious celebration, or potluck dinner with friends. The stress is real, and it can feel like joy is beyond our grasp. However, if we focus on the things we don’t have or can’t do, everything feels strange and wrong. Instead, if we take this time to discover a new hobby—or rediscover an old favorite hobby—things can start to feel surprisingly, well, normal.
Gardening is appealing for so many reasons. It adds a sense of purpose to yardwork (or to that small space on your balcony that holds the rotten succulents). When you garden with intention, you can see things grow right before your eyes, which is pretty inspiring during a pandemic. Plus, anyone can do it. Yes, you’ll probably kill some plants, but it’s a refreshing experience to fail at something and lose nothing but a few dollars spent on seeds and potting soil. And, when you finally figure out how to get your plants to grow, it’s beyond fulfilling—especially when they turn into things you can eat!
I’ve spent most of my 40 years bemoaning the fact that I can’t stand cooking. My idea of culinary skill was heating up stir-fry or scrambling eggs, and anything fancier than that just felt like such a waste of time. The pandemic has forced me to become more creative and resourceful with how I prepare food, and I know I’m not alone. There is a feeling of normalcy one can gain from using simple, fresh ingredients to make a healthy meal.
So many kids love arts and crafts, only to be steered toward more “stable” careers as adults. Well, there’s nothing like a pandemic to show us what really constitutes stable work, huh? Bust out some markers and scrap paper—or weave friendship bracelets with your kids so they can mail presents to their friends. (Bonus: You’ll help save the USPS in the process!)
My reasons for recommending gardening, cooking, and crafting is that they’re fairly inexpensive, enable you to feel creative and somewhat productive, and allow you to include your family or roommates in the fun, which brings us to…
3. Foster relationships.
We might not be able to see many of our loved ones in the flesh quite yet—at least not safely— and those we can see are probably starting to grate on our nerves a bit. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” as the saying goes! But, strong relationships are key to feeling supported and stable and in a time that is anything but.
Reconnect with old friends.
Luckily, in this era of technology, your childhood best friends are just a Zoom call away—and your study abroad crew from 10 years ago can finally reconnect without anyone having the excuse that they’re busy. (We all know “busy” just means you picked another Zoom hangout!) We can’t control a whole lot about this situation, but we can control how we choose to respond to it—for instance, by looking at these times as an opportunity to rekindle old friendships and relationships.
Get creative with loved ones.
Yes, you might be bickering with your spouse, kids, significant other, or housemates more than usual. But there are ways to find emotional relief without avoiding each other or fleeing your home. Playing games is a great way to build relationships with your family and household members—not to mention take your mind off everything else for a while. You can go with modern board games, or you can look up some fun old-fashioned parlor games from days of yore. Trust me, many of them are surprisingly entertaining!
4. Establish routines.
Routines can be grounding in the best of times, but in times of uncertainty, they are downright essential. Whether your routine is a peaceful walk followed by a cup of coffee, or a 10-minute meditation session during lunch each day, interjecting some familiar habits into your daily schedule can help make life feel a little more normal.
If you’re going to draw in your sketchbook each morning, be sure to keep it somewhere obvious so you remember to do it. Setting alarms or visual reminders is key.
If you’re finding it hard to keep a certain routine that you find enjoyable, experiment with moving it to another part of the day. There’s no need to start the day with a walk if you find you prefer an evening stroll.
5. Plan for the future.
Living in the moment is hugely important to finding a state of calm, but part of normal life does involve planning for the future. The pandemic has thrown many of us into a panicked frenzy, as we stress over finances, wonder when our next vacation will be, fret over whether we can retire on time (or at all), and weigh the costs and benefits of visiting family members who live afar. While specifics can be tough to establish, simply planning ahead and thinking about the future does add a sense of much-needed normalcy and optimism to our lives.
Whether it’s a trip abroad or a getaway to a local campsite, it’s vital to remember that you will travel again. Taking time to relax and unplug is important, so allow yourself to imagine places you’d like to go—because you will get there. And once you do, you’ll already have some of the itinerary planning done in advance!
A recent layoff, furlough, or pay cut might have you reeling, and thinking about your career might incite additional stress. But, remember that you can do plenty of things to support your career during these times. Whether you complete CEUs (clinical or non-clinical), build non-clinical skills by volunteering or taking courses online, or simply explore alternative ways to use your PT experience, everything you do during this time will only help you grow your career over the long term.
This is a challenging time for everyone, and some of us are struggling more than others. While this article is intended to provide small suggestions for establishing a sense of peace as we work toward that “new normal” we keep hearing about, it might not feel so simple to everyone. If you’re struggling with feelings of self-harm, hopelessness, or disinterest in life, please consider one of the many online therapy services available. There are people and resources out there to help. You’ve probably heard this way too many times by now, but it’s just as true as ever: we will all get through this—together.
Meredith Castin, PT, DPT, is the founder of The Non-Clinical PT, a career development resource designed to help physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leverage their degrees in non-clinical ways.