Covid-induced cabin fever, internal chaos or equanimity - how do our brains adapt to the new normal? By Joanna Mathers.
Normality, you trickster, you slippery eel. You crept back on us, your lullaby the clink of glasses in a bar and the hum of traffic. This "new normal" felt much like the old normal, but without the travel and tourists. It was quick and fun and snatched away.
Now it's lockdown 2.0. But even this cabin fever and shemozzle of toys is recognisable in its weirdness. We've been here before. How easily we adapt.
Normal (according to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary) is defined as conforming to a type, a standard, a regular pattern. It's also a feeling: a sense of safety, something expected and sound. Normal is desirable, it means you're an insider, don't rock the boat, don't challenge the status quo.
But for all its seeming predictability, normality is a fickle mistress. It's nuanced and shifts in form, according to culture, nature and customs. This being said, normal in Aotearoa was something most of us would recognise. International rugby teams, music festivals, Queenstown swamped and swollen with tourists.
Then Covid-19 gatecrashed the party.
The virus' New Zealand tour began with mutterings of an illness in China, a virulent virus. It spread with travellers, traversing the globe, invisible, insidious and reaching our country (officially at least) on February 28. From here it quickly escalated, more cases reported, and level 4.
We were a country of shut-ins and masks for seven weeks, then back to a new normal that felt very similar to the old.
Humans are enamoured by normal. The status quo guides our morality, social mores provide the foundation of "decent society". It's a phenomenon that's been explored by great minds: Scottish philosopher David Hume's "is-ought" problem (Hume's law) positing that what "is" (the norm) guides our sense of what "ought" (the ideal) to be.
Normality, in Western culture, is democracy, individualism, capitalism and freedom of movement. Lockdown was antithetical to this the last of these: restricted to our homes, the social contract was broken. (It's what the looney American Republicans rail against: "You can't make us stay at home.")
But in New Zealand, our sense of decency and common good prevailed and we let science guide our way. And with Covid's re-emergence, we have again.
How is it we can become so quickly accustomed to such dramatic changes to our lives? Even under level 1, we still had dramatically curtailed life experiences, border controls, strict monitoring of our passages through the day. Yet, so quickly, it felt familiar. Why?
Liesje Donkin is a health and clinical psychologist from the Health Psychology Practitioner Programme at University of Auckland.
She explains that our acceptance of new experiences, and our tendency to "normalise" these, is known as "habituation".
"If something is novel, it piques our interest," she explains. "Our curiosity is aroused with our warning response: we want to know the rules for this new thing. And the more we are exposed to something, the more easily we can deal with it."
We discuss how our last lockdown experiences, while challenging at times, weren't traumatic. We were lucky, we agree, to live in situations that didn't breed trauma.
"So, when the second lockdown occurred, we thought, 'This will be fine, I can manage this,' because we had become habituated to it. We had done it before and we knew what to expect."
Donkin continues by saying that this tendency to react to novelty is part of the "fight or flight" instinct.
"Our brains immediately recognise something as new, the amygdala triggers a neural response, pituitary gland and adrenal glands are activated. And the more you are exposed to a given situation, the easier it becomes."
If there is no negative outcome to a novel situation, it will eventually become classified as "safe" in your brain.
But even trauma can become "normal" if it occurs frequently enough. Victims of trauma can become habituated to it, even though such chronic stress is physiologically harmful.
Interestingly, Donkin says there is evidence that those who have experiences such stress deal with other external threats more readily.
"People who suffer from complex PTSD (caused by ongoing trauma) are anecdotally great in a crisis," says Donkin.
"A situation such as the Covid-19 pandemic is not much of a stretch for them, because their stress levels are higher than normal anyway. Stress has become their normality."
Outside of major illness, tragedy, displacement or death, the transition to parenthood is possibly one of the most dramatic breaks from "normal" a human can experience.
Women live this change most dramatically: pregnancy swells and shifts our bodies, the subjective agency of our professional lives is wrested away by a tiny, screaming scrap of dependency.
Sleep deprivation, breastfeeding, isolation from adults, and societal expectations around "good" motherhood all conspire to make the first parenting experience uniquely challenging. And our sense of "normality" – that carefully curated world we made for ourselves, crumbles like a sandcastle in a storm.
Natalie Flynn is a registered clinical psychologist and author of bestselling book Smart Mothering, which examines the research behind mothering choices. She has a particular interest in maternal depression, anxiety and other post-natal mental health issues that can beset mothers. And she knows what a mess motherhood can make of normality.
She explains that the transition to parenthood is often bumpy and can depend on any number of factors, including the expectations new parents have of what lies ahead.
"People know they are going to be tired, for example but a lot of people aren't realistic about how little time they will have to do the things that gave them a sense of identity."
Then there's the changing status of a relationship, the shift of a partner from lover to parent.
"The changes [in becoming a parent] are so widespread and profound and exist on so many levels, it takes a long time to get used to it."
In the end, most of us adapt. Flynn says that, as we wrestle with the havoc parenthood wreaks on our identity (and therefore our sense of normalcy) it's good to bear something in mind.
"You may not be able to do those things that helped forge your own sense of identity when your children are very young. The artist may not have time to go to the gallery, the academic may not be able to sit down and read papers. But your values remain.
"If you valued culture before you had children, you will still value culture. If you valued fairness, this will still be your value. If you really think about what your values are, you will realise that you are still you. Just doing things differently."
Normality can be viewed from another angle: as a synonym for balance. The hyper culture of 21st century techno-capitalism is anything but balanced: as kids are raised on the rush of video games, the adrenalin of Insta likes.
But balance, especially as we age, is vital for our wellbeing. It's enmeshed in Eastern spirituality as a guiding force: Buddhism's middle way (between ascetism and sensuality), its fourth brahmavihara (value) is equanimity.
Balance and equanimity are also at the heart of traditional yogic practice. Swami Yogamani Saraswati is an Auckland-based yoga teacher and marriage celebrant; a yoga practitioner of many decades standing.
"From my own yogic perspective," she says, "the concept of balance sits as a pivotal point within everything in life, especially in these uncertain times of change, where stresses and trauma can dominate.
"Maintaining our point of equilibrium is essential on all levels, I actually see balance as the glue that holds our life together in grace."
The balance or equanimity that lies at the centre of yogic practice is not achieved without discipline or commitment. She says that it needs to be incorporated as healthy practices in everyday lifestyle.
"I honestly believe that these practices are as important as eating, breathing and sleeping," she says.
"The beauty of having lived these practices during my life, they have become second nature to me but certainly are achievable to all sincere and committed seekers."
The nature of the yogic lifestyle, she says, is distinct from other means of experience balance as it is holistic in its nature.
"In my experience, many lack in specific areas of lifestyle, or psychology and are not completely holistic. I would say it greatly depends on the seeker [whether these methods work]: where they are at, what they wish to achieve and why."
In our stressful, Covid-ridden world, practices such as yoga can provide be a panacea.
"The ancient art of traditional yoga maintains a purity of scientific systems for potent, positive equilibrium, an outcome for the complete personality that is holistic and serene in nature," says Yogamani.
As we head back to "normal-ish" on Monday, (the masked, socially distanced, level 2 version we became accustomed to after the last lockdown) it may pay to remember that there are ways in which to weather the current storm. To achieve that balance that feels like normal.
Hold on to your values. Practice the art of meditation; find balance through yoga. And realise that, right now, Covid-19 is "normal" for all of us.
"Humans tend to compare themselves to those around them," says Flynn. "With Covid-19, we are all transitioning together, although there are some outliers, like businesses that are going under, that have been harder hit. Things feel easier if everyone is hit."
She continues by saying that she likes to draw upon the teachings of Stoics for inspiration in times of difficulty.
"When there is change or loss, you will always feel a range of emotions but you can only change those things you can control. Stomping your feet and getting angry at the world will achieve precisely nothing."
But by working with what is under your control and letting go of what isn't, the world will regain its normality again. It will just take a different form.