The new normal

Coronavirus, emergency and trauma

This current situation, ongoing for as long as it will take, has come with a much-overlooked side effect. This, unfortunately, unless looked at in the open, will exacerbate the situation, long after whatever green light freedom has been announced and this period recedes into the distance.

It feels at this moment like it will never end, and that the aftermath will lead to great changes, however, this may not be the case.

If you can remember the London Olympics, a joyful month in the near past, where every day we in the UK participated in a world event, or on the horrific side, various terrorist bombings in London, Manchester and Paris, and not forgetting more recently Grenfell, now memorialised on our calendar with anniversaries, there is the marked lack of anything feeling really different in our day-to-day lives. We licked our wounds, attended to the survivors and moved on.

On a surface level, this may appear true. However, there is something fundamental that changed. This change will remain on the backburner, threatening to return if the circumstances change again. Our imagined world can no longer be considered safe; the illusion of safety has been shattered, then slowly forgotten as we have returned to the world of appearances once again.

Emergency psyche

Human beings are remarkably resilient. Historically we can survive wars, revolutions, natural disasters, economic downturns etc. Yet for the majority, they do not fall apart - some do, of course - but we have adapted and survived, as indeed our ancestors learned to do over the last few millennia.

We have an evolved mechanism, like being hardwired for such eventualities, that is there for the ’just in case’ emergencies.

The problem is that once we have usefully encountered it and used this unsophisticated emergency thinking to survive, it cannot easily be switched off. All things/events will now have to be weighed up in the balance of 'what type of new emergency is this'?

Hand reaching out and touching water

The problem is the notion of the invisible virus enemy, somehow constantly there in the background. This can make every person, surface, journey outside seem dangerous, or at least high risk.

We have collectively lost our trust in the world as a safe enough place; everyday things become a throw of the dice, in an unacknowledged game of chance, played for high stakes.

The big risk is that we become attenuated to the threat, bored even, playing a seemingly endless game with no clear-cut rules. The parameters change constantly, fuelled by over-excited media and the quest to feel better than useless in the face of this disease.

The danger here is that we start to test the riskiness of the situation, it is easy to forget and self-sabotage as the days drag on. Like a child told that the lake is dangerous to swim in, we stare into the waters and try dangling our toes in for a while, to see whether this is true or not.

We can learn to trust the world again, to be safe enough and this experience will be absorbed into our collective knowledge, mediated by movies, novels, songs and art as a memento of these times.

Our fascination with danger, our reluctance to just be an obedient child is stirred into action. The emergency brain has now made us into our own worst enemy, as we swing between extreme caution and bold adventures. There are only black and white areas. No happy middle.

This thinking is a reboot of our preverbal child mind. When we don’t know what is going on we fill in the gaps and the world is either hope for the best (happy child, it will get better) or extreme distress (the bawling, crying infant). Without words that can accurately grab the moment, we have become emotionally hijacked, and so the see-saw swing comes into action.

After all, this duality was useful once, it worked too keep us safe when we were at our most vulnerable. It is a useful tool, but not the only one (if we are armed with only a hammer, all our problems begin to look like nails!).

The end game

We escaped from this state of uselessness, reacting to everything that did not quite make sense once before. We have all moved from this state of infantile reckoning to the calmer waters of adulthood.

On this journey, we have learnt in the most part, how to tolerate not knowing (the playful side of this ‘emergency’ thinking is in watching live sports, such pleasure in the tension of not really knowing how it will turn out). We have learnt that our experience is the worthwhile reality test to dispel the imagined demons or, indeed, the belief that we are invulnerable and need to be strong always.

When we have better, more informed knowledge, we will once again be able to make wise choices. We can learn to trust the world again, to be safe enough and this experience (which is not over yet, I write this on day 55 of the UK lockdown) will be absorbed into our collective knowledge, mediated by movies, novels, songs and art as a memento of these times.

We will emerge from this wiser, perhaps more wary of threat (global warming and the Anthropocene spring to mind) and our communities will move on. I don’t know where to, but the journey of our lives will continue.

Stay safe. Remember, this too will end.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Marius Jankowski

I have a background in behavioural psychology, studying as a zoologist in the 80's and working with comparative techniques. This later lead me to change to the psychoanalytic approaches as pure psychology, with it's emphasis on cognition and behaviour, never seemed to me to encapsulate the complexity and beauty of being a human being.… Read more

Written by Marius Jankowski

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