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COVID-19: What if things don't go back to normal?

If the coronavirus pandemic has got you anxious about when, how or even if life will go back to normal, you’re not alone.

Teen boy looking sad, with forehead pressed to glass window

Coping with change can be stressful

If you’re feeling anxious about what’s going to happen, it could be because you’re having to cope with lots of change.

You could be struggling with… 

  • adjusting to changes that have already happened
  • anxiety about changes you know are coming
  • worrying about unknown changes you can’t foresee
  • … or a combination of the above

This is normal! For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the unknown could be dangerous. New places might have had predators or dangerous obstacles. New people might have been friendly, or they might have been an enemy that could hurt you. 

This is why our brain finds change stressful. Our brain likes things that are familiar and routine – because these things feel safe.

Your brain is great at adapting to change

Our brains have established 'neural pathways’ (emotions, thoughts and behaviours we use all the time). These are mostly automatic – they’re your ‘default’ setting.

When we experience change, we have to do things differently. This means we have to form new neural pathways.

With time and repetition, your brain follows the new neural pathway and starts to get used to it.

Then with enough practice, that neural pathway becomes your ‘default’ which means the changes and new routines will get easier as they will start to feel familiar, normal and safe.

Within my control

The positives of change

Change gets a pretty bad rap sometimes. But there are actually a lot of good things that can come from change. Here are some examples:

Our relationships improve. Change can require us to reach out to those around us and band together when times get tough. This can help strengthen relationships and allow us to feel more connected to each other.

Society benefits from change. Change that requires people to adjust on a larger scale can have positive outcomes. For example, things like changes to how we shop, work and learn, might have long-lasting, positive effects and benefits.

New strengths are developed. With many of our activities now occurring from home, we’ve had to embrace technology like never before. Technology may have been scary, but now it’s how we communicate and get work done. Something challenging has now become a strength that we can use once the tough times are over.

Priorities change. We can get caught up in our daily routines and struggle to find time to relax and unwind. Change can encourage us to pause and reflect. For some people this might mean discovering new talents (or rediscovering old ones) or taking time to engage in self-care. This will look different for everyone.

Change, loss and grief

It’s normal to experience feelings of loss and grief after going through a big change.

Grief is a normal emotional state and helps you release and heal.

Here’s some info on the different stages of grief. 

You might experience some, or all, of these in different ways (and in any order).

Stages of grief

Coping with grief and loss

There are lots of ways to cope with grief, and it’s important to figure out what works for you. Here are some things that may help:

  • Be kind to yourself. Healing takes time. You might feel ok one moment and miserable the next. 
  • Remind yourself that ‘this too shall pass’. Emotions are changeable. No matter how bad you feel, it won’t last forever.
  • Connect with other people. Grief can be quite lonely. Confiding in someone means sharing your grief. Sometimes people keep grief to themselves as they don’t want to burden others. But most people find it rewarding to be trusted, and to support someone who is grieving.
  • Do things that bring you comfort. This can be anything that helps you feel safe and loved.
  • Make meaning. ‘When you lose, don’t lose the lesson’. Things going wrong or getting hard can be meaningful and have purpose. For example, you might find out who your truest friends are, because they stick around when things get tough. Or, you might realise that you were getting caught up in things that were against your values, and a tough time allowed you to reconnect with what was important to you.
  • If you are a religious or spiritual person, you can turn to your beliefs, rituals or community for comfort. Religion and spirituality are another way of finding meaning or support. Research has shown these things can help you move forward with grief.

“We don’t ‘move on’ from loss, we ‘move forward' with it.”

– Amanda, Kids Helpline Counsellor

Healing as a community

A pandemic is a ‘collective trauma’. This means a lot of people are experiencing much of the same difficult experiences as each other.

Throughout human history, groups of people have experienced pandemics, natural disasters, persecution, wars and other collective traumas. Here’s how these people have ‘bounced back’ and healed afterwards.

  • Storytelling. Stories reflect who we are, and what we believe. Often when people tell stories about their hardship, this can create supportive relationships with others that create unity and inspire action. 
  • Kindness and empathy. Trauma can allow people to develop a stronger sense of empathy for those who are also having a tough time. This allows us to become more accepting and understanding of others.
  • Gratitude. People affected by trauma can have a greater appreciation for life and recognise pathways and possibilities they may not have considered before.
  • Sense of community. Traumatic growth can bring people closer together as we learn not to take those around us for granted. Collective trauma helps create a stronger connection between ourselves and others.
  • Resilience. Some of the toughest times have allowed people to emerge stronger than before and enhance their belief in their abilities. 

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This content was last reviewed 30/04/2020

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