Adrienne: With everyone shut in as a result of COVID-19, we’re all hearing a lot of recommendations for great reads, or podcasts, or good options for binge-watching.
But how far can these distractions take us? What’s the best way to cope with everything? Today our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson joins us to discuss the upsides of living under this ‘new normal.’ Hi Scott!
Scott: Hi Adrienne.
Adrienne: What have you been sensing from people as you’ve been scrolling through social media Scott?
Scott: It seems like a lot of people are really struggling with being housebound. There’s people who are binge watching to the extreme, or some feel like they’re stress-eating or drinking… weed sales are way up. Some reactions even feel like they border on obsessive-compulsive behaviour. People are reorganizing their sock drawer, others are going big and reorganizing a whole room. Some are obsessively checking the news, others can’t stop scrolling facebook. One otherwise healthy woman cleaned her entire bathroom floor to ceiling with a toothbrush. Everyone’s a bit on edge. Couples are arguing more. There’s more battling with the kids. Not all of these reactions would be healthy in the long term but, in the short term, it’s helpful to keep them in perspective. All they’re really showing is how normal we all are.
Adrienne: Okay… how does all that demonstrate normalcy?
Scott: Brains function using patterns. They’re like grooves in our brain. Our brain doesn’t want to re-decide the same things every day, so it builds us grooves to follow. That’s why we tend to get ready in the morning in the same order every day. We call our groove for driving to work a ‘route.’ We have a groove for our meeting format, another one for how we approach email. Most of what we call ‘our day’ is made of grooves. Without the grooves we can’t create the assumptions that we call ‘our life.’ If we go from work to a severance package, or come home to a divorce, our life is upside down. If even one of our assumptions doesn’t hold up, we’re off balance. Change too many things at once, and we’re heading toward PTSD.
Adrienne: So a lot of us are seeking routines to feel more normal when everything with COVID-19 is the opposite?
Scott: Exactly. Early last week it seemed safe to assume that store shelves would include toilet paper and red meat. Now we’re all social distancing; we’re shopping in stores stripped by panic buying. We’re not gearing up for playoffs. It’s like the sun’s rising in the West or something. Which leaves us stuck with brains that have grooves built for a world that is currently ‘on hold.’ The ‘disorder’ in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is caused by our brain not being able to fit our experiences into our previous brain wiring. It’s like we’ve studied English our entire lives and now we’re somewhere where no one speaks English. Plus we’re also not even sure if we’re safe. So our nerves are heightened. We all feel more vulnerable than normal; that just makes us feel even more defensive; which is why people are lashing out.
Most of the disagreements we have over the next few weeks will actually be caused strictly by the stress of this change, so we all need to show each other some tolerance as we get used to this. We really can’t underestimate how big a thing it is that we’re asking our brain to do. For us to feel a desire to escape the experience with things like video games, or alcohol, or binge-watching makes sense. So does trying to control at least some little part of the world. We just want some relief, or some order. At least until we return to the sanity that our normal assumptions allow.
Adrienne: Is our only hope to wait for things to get back to normal? Is there anything we can do while this drags on?
Scott: Well, ideally, we just learn to sit with our uncomfortable sensations and not try to make them go away. But that’s a very Zen-like approach to a situation that people just want some quick help with. Fortunately, for most of us, the more practical answer is hidden in the problem. If our brain feels uncomfortable because it can’t carry out its habits, then it’s pining for something consistent to secure itself to. Rather than drinking or serial facebooking, what we need to do is carve out some new habits. And if feeling more stable is our objective, then the closer the new habits are to the old habits, the faster we’ll feel better.
Adrienne: What does that actually look like in action?
Scott: We can start by building a schedule for ourselves, or the family, that everyone will actually follow. If possible, and if it works given all of the other changes, the parents can still go through their normal morning routine. Kids can still get ready at the same times. The more that stays the same the more signals our brain will get that we’re okay. If we’re looking for comfort, we’re looking for familiarity. People might find they’re attracted to playing video games they played as kids, or they’ll crave their family’s comfort food.
–Obviously we can’t keep everything the same, but if we can find good matches for the old patterns, that would help. If a kid is normally at daycare and this would normally be free play time, then doing something similar will likely be easier for the parent than pushing the kid out of their groove. If we accept that a lot of things will feel weird, and then grab the things that are comforting, then over time we can just keep adding things that work. We just have to keep our standards sane. We have to remember, it’s not like our lives were perfect before this either.
Adrienne: Okay– so that’s how we can cope. Do you think there’s any way for us to benefit from going through this experience?
Scott: We can do what we’ve all been wanting to do and slow down a bit. And –I think the biggest gains will come thanks to everyone in the world is being forced to try new ways of doing things. A lot of the changes that happen now will stick because they’re better.
Adrienne: What would be changes for the better in your mind?
Scott: A lot of people will learn they don’t need to fly as much as they thought. That’s fewer GHG’s and more time at home. That’s a good thing. A lot of us will find more effective workflows. Maybe the changes force us to get up two hours earlier and find out we became a ‘morning person’ without realizing it. We might find we work better in the evening, or near a window. A lot of us will probably try some of Doreen’s staple-based recipes and stick with them But most importantly, as frustrating as it can feel at times, we should remember that this is extra time for families. Kids often feel like we’re all lessons, or explanations, or solutions but not much listening. With everyone slowed down this is a chance to make better connections with our kids. Despite all this weirdness, there’s no reason this experience can’t end up improving our personal lives or bringing our families closer together. And given the circumstances, one of the most generous ways we can love someone is to forgive each other for our temporary rough patches.
Adrienne: Scott McPherson is our wellness columnist. He is a writer, speaker and instructor at relaxandsucceed.com, here in Edmonton.
I regularly join Radio Active‘s host Adrienne Pan, on CBC Radio One here in Edmonton. You can listen via AM740, FM93.9 (in Edmonton), or elsewhere through the CBC Listen app, or via the web on Radio One at CBC.ca. Today we’ll be on at 5:40pm.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to the bottom of this post within a few days of airing.
Around the world, people are struggling to adapt to a new normal. Today, Adrienne and I will discuss how we can contextualize what’s happening in ways that can help us gain perspective. As the saying goes, we should never waste a good crisis.
If you get to hear it and haven’t before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the show. They have a great team.
Take care everyone. Here’s to a grateful day for all of us.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.