You Will Adjust to the New Normal

An expert provides context for the “oh my God” moment many have when they begin to grapple with a pandemic.

People grocery shopping in Spain to prepare for the coronavirus
Vincent West / Reuters

Yesterday, Americans got three pieces of news that changed how seriously many will take the coronavirus pandemic: President Donald Trump suspended entry by most foreign nationals from 26 European countries for the next 30 days; the NBA suspended its season; and the actor Tom Hanks announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

As a result, millions of Americans are just now beginning to process the severity of the situation in the way that information junkies have been doing for weeks. If you’re feeling overwhelmed as you try to assess what this all means for you and your family, know that this is a normal and perhaps even useful response. “The adjustment reaction is an emotional rehearsal, getting you psychologically ready to cope if you have to,” Peter Sandman, an expert on risk management, has written. “It is also a logistical rehearsal; it’s how you start figuring out what to do and how to do it.”

Along with Jody Lanard, Sandman wrote a primer on preparing large populations for pandemics, which I’ve found to be a useful resource over the past couple of weeks. It is a sobering read. Tough times are ahead, and almost everyone is going to have their life disrupted for a while. Their primer also offers real solace to the newly aware and anxious observer.

“This OMG realization that we have termed the ‘adjustment reaction’ is a step that is hard to skip on the way to the new normal,” they explain. But most do adapt: “The adjustment reaction is a temporary phenomenon that eases the transition to whatever is next. Very few people get stuck in a long-term over-reaction.”

One practice I’ve tried to adopt, with mixed success, is to be smart about following COVID-19 news, checking often enough to stay abreast of important public-health information without indulging the temptation to obsess about it. Keep up with what’s happening day to day, but don’t imagine that refreshing your browser or social-media app many times an hour is useful.

Although many may refrain from voicing their anxieties, most of us are worried. Recognizing that we’re all going through this together can be a comfort.