What exactly does “new normal” mean? It is an expression that has become mainstream vernacular since the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the field of trauma response and recovery, it is a term that has long been used to provide hope for survivors.
For individuals who have experienced trauma in their lives, seeking a new normal is their proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. On the path toward healing, life as they know it moving forward is going to be different. Anticipating a new normal can be both scary and empowering. Facing the unknown without the (often unhealthy) behaviors that helped you survive is scary. Taking the risk of trying new behaviors and experiencing success is empowering.
For many, the past 3 months of sheltering-in-place and physical distancing has been stressful. For others, it has brought back traumatizing memories of isolation, marginalization, and the shame that can be associated with loneliness.
As the work of Dr. Stephen Porges illustrates in his seminal work The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self regulation, after a trauma, people experience the world with a different nervous system that has altered perception of risk and safety. For many people, their nervous systems have been altered after the past 3 months of social isolation due to COVID. When one’s perceptions of risk and safety are altered, it makes it more challenging to trust and connect with others as well as to advocate for one’s own needs and the needs of loved ones. Consequently, people may adapt in ways that are helpful in the short-term, but damaging in the long-term.
As we emerge from our shelter-in-place cocoon alongside the pandemic’s ever-looming presence, the question is how do we help people establish a trauma-informed new normal—a new normal that promotes both long- and short- term healing? One that includes sensitivity toward each individual’s unique lived-experience as well as the collective pain that impacts our communities.
Risking Connection training—a central pillar of the Traumatic Stress Institute’s Whole System Change Model—contains an acronym that can inform trauma-sensitive interactions among all of us and fosters much-needed hope and healing from the impacts of COVID-19. RICH© relationships, characterized by Respect, Information, Connection and Hope, when practiced, builds trust and safety for both individuals and communities. Here is how we can employ RICH to create a trauma-informed new normal:
Respect: Acknowledging and respecting the fact that not everyone has had the same experience during this time of lockdown. For some, it has been an opportunity to hit the reset button in life. For others, especially for people of color, it has been a daily reminder of the inequities in health care, access to community resources and connection to cultural rituals that facilitate healing. For individuals with lived experience of trauma, the lockdown may have activated feelings and sensations similar to their trauma history. The isolation may have deprived them of the tools they’ve long used to help them regulate these feelings and sensations. Showing respect for each individual’s experience may be as simple as asking, “what was it like for you?,” and then creating the conditions for one to respond without fear of shame or judgement.
Information: Dealing with the unknown activates fear and uncertainty. Information is the antidote for such fear. The challenge of managing information during this pandemic is that each day can present a new set of facts or guidelines. Predicting and preparing for the evolution of facts can support co-regulation. Proactively sharing details about COVID-19 and anticipating the ripple effect of new information can provide people the time and space to prepare for the new normal in their work, social, and community environment.
Connection: Words matter. To keep people safe during this pandemic, guidelines promote social distancing. The connotation of social distancing implies a restriction of connection with others. The term we promote is physical distancing. As individuals and communities crave connection, the new normal will include face masks, six feet of physical distancing, and only small group gatherings, but it should not preclude opportunities for people to socially connect with colleagues and community in a safe way.
Hope: To make room for hope, it is important to acknowledge the losses people have experienced as a result of the pandemic. Work to create space for individuals to grieve what was, how they worked, played, connected, while also honoring the pain and sadness that those ways of being may not be a part of the new normal. Perhaps then, we will have made the space to feel hopeful about the gifts that our new normal will present.
As a mindset and a practice, RICH is available to all of us – during times of crisis and in our new normal. In this way, the COVID pandemic has personally and collectively opened us to new possibilities. And as the acclaimed writer, Mark Nepo, in The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have invites:
“What is opened in us is always more important than what opens us. The mind may be the greatest tool that a human being could have, but the heart is the greatest threshold.”