Control What You Can in the New Normal

By Kristen Harris

Every year Merriam-Webster announces a Word of the Year. We have a few obvious candidates for 2020: coronavirus, COVID, social distance, mask, pandemic, quarantine. 

Might I also suggest loneliness, isolation, and lack of control? 

Sometime in February, we started hearing about this new “coronavirus,” and in March, the whole world shifted. All of this change has a significant impact on mental health, substance use, and even suicidal ideation. There are so many things happening that we can’t control, and it’s starting to get to people. 

I like being alone; I really do! I’m an only child and have always been good at entertaining myself. But one thing I’ve noticed throughout this situation is how much I miss little interactions with people. Our team meets via video every morning and throughout the day, helping with our connection and collaboration. However, I did not realize how many little random connections or conversations I used to have with people: at the coffee maker or in the office, at the grocery store, coffee shop, or picking up a library book. I miss those little exchanges throughout the day. Now everything I do is planned, infrequent, and with the intention of interacting as little as possible. As it turns out, isolating yourself is lonely. 

Being six months into this situation, I’ve accepted that this is my current version of “normal.” I need to take charge of myself, my health, and control what I can. And let go of what I can’t, which, as it turns out, is a lot. 

Here are a few things I’m doing to take charge and connect with others:

  1. Find ways to connect. If you’re on video meetings all day, you might not want to be tethered to a computer when chatting with a friend or relative. That’s okay! Try a phone call, text, email, or snail mail note. Even if I don’t hear back from the person right away, I always feel better just by reaching out and thinking of them.

  2. Find things you can do. Amid everything you realize you can’t do, look for what you can do. I’ve been working on lots of projects, some fun and some practical. My house will never look better, and every puzzle in this house will be assembled soon. But I’m also taking time for online classes, educating myself on social justice issues, pleasure reading, encouraging people to vote this fall, and walking. Lots and lots of walking. 

  3. Set goals and celebrate achievements. At the beginning of 2020, I set a few personal and professional goals–it was going to be The Best Year Ever! We all know how that has turned out. Now I have a few smaller and totally achievable goals and force myself to celebrate my accomplishments. If you’re into doing a quarantine cleanse or 90-day challenge, go for it. But if you’re not, set a goal that you can achieve and then pat yourself on the back when you accomplish it.

  4. Control what you can and let go of the rest. We can’t control a lot right now, and I started to stress myself thinking about all of it. How will school start (although I don’t have kids)? When will there be a vaccine (although I can’t do anything to create one)? When will we go back to the office (although working remotely is going amazingly well)? Finally, I just had to choose a few things I do have control over, focus on those, and let go of the rest. I listen to a morning news brief because I want to stay informed on current events, but if I can’t control it, I don’t need to worry about it. Please note…this is easier said than done. I’m still working on it. 

  5. Give yourself a break. Literally and figuratively. We’re all experiencing this particular set of circumstances for the first time, and I believe that everyone is doing their best. It might not look perfect, and we might not appreciate how someone else is handling it, but let go of comparisons and give yourself a break. Also, literally, take breaks! A midday walk, afternoon meditation or mini-nap, staycation, or safe out-of-town trip can do wonders for your mental well-being.

  6. Play music when you’re alone. Recently I realized that part of why I feel lonely is because everywhere I go is so quiet. There’s no other background noise; even the traffic on our street is unusually light these days with so few people commuting to work. Working at home or in the office, waiting for my grocery or library pickup, wherever I am, I’m usually alone. Previously I would have gone into those spaces, and there would have been music playing, people talking, general background noise. Now I make a point to play music or a podcast, especially if I’m feeling a bit lonely. It helps me remember that there are other people in the world, even if I rarely see them!

These are “unprecedented” times (another candidate for Word of the Year), but we’ll get through it. I look forward to those little random chats with people someday in the future, but for now, I’ll keep doing these things that help me feel more connected and in control of what I can.