Adjusting to life after COVIDIMAGE: DAVIS SANCHEZ | PEXELSDepending on the change, adjustment can take a long time or a short time. Change will come; it always does. We can be prepared or unprepared. We can adjust or stay put. It can be an easy transition or a hard one. How we adjust, though, is always up to Tracey GroombridgeI recently had a tooth pulled. It was painful for a couple of days, but it was my lack of foresight about how much this small gap in my mouth would consume my thoughts and behaviours for weeks to come that really caught me off guard. My tongue no longer behaved like it did when the tooth was there. My tongue, with a mind of its own, wanted to go explore that gap all day long, which made it painful and hindered the healing process. Where did my tongue even sit before now? I couldn’t even remember. This small change in my life threw my brain and my tongue into a tailspin, neither adjusting well to this new normal.

I hadn’t realised how much my thoughts and behaviours would have to change to accommodate this new hole in my mouth. After three weeks my brain has finally started to adjust. It’s no longer focused on my tongue and my tongue is no longer focused on the hole; but why had it taken so long? What I’ve learnt is that when we don’t see the full impact of a change or we underestimate the impact of that change, it’s harder to adjust.

COVID-19 surprised most of us here and across the globe. Sadly, it’s still continuing to surprise and impact us each day. Just when we think we have adjusted, another new change comes along and we have to re-adjust. Even when we think we have worked through the emotions and the challenges it thrusts our way, it can still manage to bite us in the ass, and we fall over once again, to think “how did I not see that coming?” Once again we get back up and re-adjust.
Loss of controlWe have little control over COVID-19. We have little control over the decisions made about how it’s managed at a higher level and over what others do. The one thing we do have control over is how fast and how well we adjust to this new normal.

Adjustment is often where you feel the struggle the most. If you think back over your life, to a time when you struggled most, you were probably going through some sort of transition or change that was hard to accept.
This diagram shows adjustment as the intersection between change and acceptance.

The space in the middle is where we humans sometimes stumble. It feels uncomfortable, unmanageable and at times foreign. It doesn’t feel right. We will do anything to hold onto the old and resist the new. Think about how many diversion techniques we have up our sleeves when we really don’t want to accept the change that has arrived. We can bury our heads so far in the sand that we can barely breath, but at least we can’t see what’s coming next – right?!

In the space that bridges change to acceptance we do our toughest time

Sometimes we suffer for long periods in our lives, not able to accept a change that was too significant for us, or too traumatic for us to face yet.

When we are trying to avoid adjusting, our emotions get the better of us. In Australia we often drink our woes away, or we pretend it’s not happening by ignoring it. It hurts to be in that space between change and acceptance. It hurts because we have to teach our brains to change direction or see a new perspective, and that’s unpleasant for us to do. And it hurts because we romanticise what was before, and we don’t want anything to change that feels comfortable. Having recently experienced an empty nest with my sons moving interstate, I started to romanticise what it was like all those years ago with a house of little kids.

Sometimes though we don’t have a choice, as the change has been forced upon us whether we like it or not. COVID-19 was this type of change, one that we had to endure, whether we liked it or not, and if we were honest, despite understanding the reasoning, we still sometimes fought with the adjustment space between then and now. Acceptance doesn’t have to mean you agree with the change but sometimes it’s about accepting that change has happened – or is about to happen – and you have very little control over it.

Here is what I have learnt about that space in between:

The longer you stay in that space the harder it is to get to the other side.

Recognising overwhelming emotion as a normal part of the process during adjustment makes you agonise less and be more understanding and patient with yourself.

Talking to people during this part of the process means you get alternative perspectives to make it possible to weigh up the best options and move to the new normal.

Putting your head in the sand only ends in delaying the inevitable, and gives you sandy ears, not to mention hearing issues.

Being kind to yourself during this phase makes it easier to move forward, for you and everyone around you.

Blaming others only keeps you stuck without solid solutions.
AdjustmentI’m not saying that you have to accept unfair change, or even that you have to agree with the change. But you have to accept that you need to move forward somehow, even if you keep up the fight to prove that the change is wrong while you move forward. Otherwise you get sucked into that vortex that is the space in between, and it can engulf you.IMAGE: LEANDRA BISCHOFBERGER| UNSPLASHPsychologists work with people who have difficulty adjusting to some of life’s traumas and stresses. They call it adjustment disorder – the inability to adjust and having unusually strong or long-lasting reactions to stressful life events, that can cause severe psychological symptoms and sometimes physical symptoms. If you think that might be you, make sure you get help with this to move forward.

Adjustment is a pretty important skill to nail. It’s not one that I think I have mastered, and maybe it can never be mastered, but instead we get better at managing change along the way. What I have discovered is that there are some important questions to help bridge the gap to a new normal.

1. When do I need to adjust?
If I see the change coming and if my head’s not firmly in the sand, most of the time I can start to prepare for the change before it really hits and I end up in a panic. I have an idea of when I need to start to change my behaviours, thoughts and attitudes. If it’s change that I can see a benefit in it’s easier, even when it’s forced change. COVID-19 surprised us; so it was kind of hard to accept or understand at first, especially with so many conflicting opinions and facts.

Usually you can tell how good you are at adjusting from previous experiences, but with COVID-19 this was all new territory. None of us had been through a pandemic in Australia before, not even anything close to a pandemic. Unprecedented was the word of the year, and we felt the discomfort in the early days.

It’s funny looking back. I thought I had adjusted well in the early days, but it actually hit me out of nowhere about six weeks into lockdown, when we really knew this was going to be a long-term adjustment, and my brain just froze for a while. This was not going to be like teaching my tongue not to explore the gap; this was going to be some significant long-term behaviour change on my part.

There is never an ideal time to adjust. There are however advantages to seeing the change coming; preparation can help.

2. How do I adjust?
At first I thought the biggest adjustment would be working from home, but this surprised me, because I actually enjoyed working from home, and didn’t miss the office nearly half as much as I expected.

I now know, looking back, that the biggest adjustment to living in a COVID-19 lockdown was coming to grips with the fear of having too much time on my hands, especially at the weekends. Prior to COVID-19 my life was jam-packed with so much stuff that the zippers were breaking around the edges of my life. Prior to COVID- 19 my weekends were full, catching up with friends, volunteering, writing, studying and the occasionally housework. Then COVID-19 came and there was nothing; not even sport on TV.
IMAGE: ALEX POWELL | PEXELSOn reflection my biggest adjustment was to not be fearful of the quiet, the space where there was nothing to do. What I found was that that quiet was freedom from obligations and chaos. I felt like a kid again being bored in the school holidays, but what eventually happens is that out of boredom comes something creative. I started to explore things I never had time for or motivation to do prior to the lockdown. Things such as finding new music, exploring comedy, craftwork and crunches (well the last one only occasionally). I missed my family and friends but I found new ways to connect with them. I had to think creatively, like reading my nephew a book over Facetime, or catching up with friends on a weekend via Zoom.Time to think about it differentlyInstead of worrying I’m missing out, I had to convince myself that it was an opportunity. Shifting this mindset wasn’t easy. It took some weeks for my ancient brain to catch up to where it needed to be. With patience and practice I adjusted.

When I think about how I did this, I had to be aware of, and challenge, old beliefs that were stuck in my mind about what productivity is. Productivity does not simply mean busy. Productivity for me is about achieving something you can be proud of. It’s about quality not quantity.

I think the other part of the puzzle was to take action; not just think about doing something different, but use this time to actually do it. Otherwise I might have spent the whole of COVID-19 lockdown just thinking and thinking, which is not great for me. So I signed up for that comedy course and I did it. When would I ever have time like this again? I had to convince my brain that I was lucky, not unlucky.

3. How much do I adjust?
 What do I need to keep resisting and is it worth the fight?

When I compare myself to others, such as those in industries affected by COVID-19 like the arts, music, hospitality and tourism industries, I see that I haven’t had to adjust as much as others, simply because I still had an income. Had I lost that income the adjustment would have been far greater and much harder. Talking to people who perform for a living it’s clear they are grieving that part of their work – the part that gives them instant feedback and connection with an audience, and the part that tells them what they are doing is being appreciated, heard and is worthwhile.

I think this type of adjustment to loss is much harder for our brains to process rapidly. Most of us don’t have a backup plan if our way to earn a living suddenly disappears.

I certainly haven’t had to adjust to longer working hours and harder shifts like those working in essential services. Those people have had to adjust to decisions made by others, that put their families and themselves at risk. They have also had to adjust to being placed into the spotlight; not an easy adjustment to make for people who normally go about their work in a quiet and unassuming way. They have had to adjust to public expectations, and sometimes this can be the hardest adjustment of all.

Having said all that, I think I have made enough adjustments – so much so, that there are things and ways of thinking that I would prefer not to go back to.
4. On reflection – what do I want to go back to? Will this be useful to me?
Although COVID-19 is far from over, and we might in fact be in the eye of the storm, I have confidence that we humans can adjust to what comes next.

There are some things that COVID-19 has taught me, and some new ways that I like better. So I have decided that I will not go back to:
  • Crazy pressures brought on by unrealistic timeframes
  • Peak hour traffic
  • Spending money on takeaway lunch everyday
  • Taking family and friends for granted
  • Forgetting about essential workers; instead I’ll try making their day for a change
  • The hustle of mornings before work (my brain clearly doesn’t work best in the mornings)
  • Putting off important things until another day
  • Being fearful of boredom, for it is the mother of creativity
  • Not talking about change to those I trust
Adjusting should be a life skill taught to children!

COVID-19 has reminded us that we are creatures of habit, and that adjustment for humans can be tough, and we might need extra help to get through it at times. Adjustment is an essential skill to learn and keep learning. We need to actively find ways to help our brains accept that change is occurring and there will soon be another new normal.

Change will come; it always does. We can be prepared or unprepared. We can adjust or stay put. It can be an easy transition or a hard one. How we adjust, though, is always up to us.
Tracey is a seasoned writer, mentor and trainer, and has a passion for strengthening people and businesses. She writes with humour, authenticity, clarity, and with the hope that her writing can be of use to someone, so that they can be a better person. Tracey is a professional coach, supporting people to lead meaningful lives.

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