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Redefining normalcy—what it means to retain hope during a pandemic

Highlighting joyous moments in the past, making use of strategic skills, finding community online—how people are retaining hope in this time

Jaya Mehrotra

A young client begins her session with concerns about planning a family. She lists her apprehensions before we begin to work through several cognitive and somatic sessions. As we progress, her apprehensions give way to a newfound excitement.

A working professional with chronic anxiety is eager to embark on a new assignment in Singapore. With contracts signed and visas procured, it’s only a matter of time before he sets off. Amidst the anxieties of transition, new aspirations are discussed and life goals set.

A recent graduate, who once battled exam anxiety and the brutal pressure of peer comparisons, has come a long way. Our conversations are now centered on new ambitions, the excitement of summer approaching, and the jitters of embarking on working life.

Today, in the time of a pandemic, my sessions with the same clients are startlingly different. No matter what the differences were in their earlier concerns, they all pivot towards new similar ones—livelihood and uncertainty. In those once eager to start a family, I now observe a distinct fear of visiting clinics and hospitals. For the young graduate, the open-ended uncertainty has replaced the initial excitement. And for the professional in the midst of a significant career move, the dejection is all too apparent.

As schools and colleges shut down, businesses shuttered, employees dismissed, and marriages postponed for the first time, a world that has moved like clockwork, in perfect synchrony, year on year, turns on its head. The country is under lockdown.

In this chaos and uncertainty, it is imperative that we redefine normalcy.

Now, in our sessions, we talk through alternatives, available and unimagined. Problems have solutions once we realize that every important life decision and plan—irrespective of the certainty with which they were once made—can still be altered, timelines can be adjusted, and/or postponed.

We deal with the pink slip by exploring the stigma associated with it, and the realization that taking strategic risks—like the decision to join a start-up (which meant a greater chance of getting laid off) are a badge of honour. Transformations occur when you are forced to make a sudden change, and situations like these call for strategy skills, which will allow you to leverage your opportunities and rework your career path.

For professionals who are finding it difficult to gather the pieces of what was once meant to be a new opportunity, we sit down to recalibrate choices and timelines. In such sessions, we first focus on lifting the initial fatigue by taking a deep breath (figuratively and actually), working on recalling experiences, picking out moments of joy—personal milestones, achievements, contracts won, appreciation received, promotions earned (sometimes against odds), challenges overcome—and building a ‘positive scrapbook’ which bolsters them in the face of adversity. Their smile reaches their eyes and shoulders visibly straighten, on a video session! 

As a therapist, I know that alleviating the client’s exhaustion and panic allows for their inherent survival instinct to kick-in, paving the way for us to work on contingency plans. 

As clients approach me, their future plans uncertain, it is apparent that along with their personal concerns, they collectively feel alone and abandoned in the middle of this pandemic. However, social distancing doesn’t necessarily have to mean loneliness and isolation; our social lives can be just as lively online, through video conferences and virtual games. It is essential to be aware that for once, all of humanity faces the same predicament, collectively. 

There is a sense of relief that seeps in, albeit subconscious, once we realize that we’re not the only ones fighting our fears. We are not alone in this, and we are not the only ones feeling this way. For the first time, we are all struggling to redefine a new normal. A new way of life. 

I recently did a self-disclosure of having enjoyed playing tambola on Zoom with my neighbours. The six of us, who live  close to each other,  decided to collectively fight the isolation by redefining normalcy. We sipped on wine and pulled each other’s leg, our respective houses echoing with our laughter—old friendships adapting to the new times. 

Happiness and fulfillment come to me in the form of a text message from a client after our session. “Have you heard of Houseparty? It’s a new app my friends sent me. It allows us to video conference and play games at the same time. I’m meeting my friends on it later tonight!” the message read. The text also went a step further into explaining that you can choose to party-hop between multiple ‘house-parties’ on the app. The message was short, but it spoke volumes— it told me that the new normal can also be equally vibrant and dynamic.   

Jaya is a counselor and psychotherapist with a specialization in Integral somatic psychology.