The New Unreality and Mental Health

By Laurie Nadel

As lockdown eases and the economy opens up, it might be tempting to think that the stress of COVID-19 is in our rear-view mirror. Residual anxiety is likely to linger for a while, especially when the economy is unstable.

First things first: There is no such thing as “new normal” nor do we ever get to go back. We can only move forward into what officials call “the new abnormal.”

I prefer to think of it as “the new unreality” because reality as we knew it no longer exists. Just like 9-11 has become a point of reference, COVID-19 is a time-stamp in our collective psyche. We will refer to “before the pandemic, during lockdown and since COVID-19” for years to come.

As the markets adjust, it’s important to bear in mind that you, the broker and your clients are likely to be more emotional, with fears about the future surfacing more often. It can be helpful to address this head-on by asking clients how they have been affected by the virus itself, the psychological impact of lockdown, and the financial implications for them.

Last June, the National Institutes of Health declared Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) a national epidemic with 44-million Americans (including 6 million veterans) struggling with flashbacks, anxiety and hypervigilance. Many Californians are still reeling psychologically and financially from the wildfires that have caused billions of dollars in damages. States that have suffered natural disasters report a 50 percent jump in bankruptcies within three years of the event. Bankruptcies in adjoining states often increase by 20 percent. The socio economic ripple effect adds to the overall anxiety across the board.

In my book, “The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes” you will find research and case studies to help you assist your clients who are dealing with trauma.

May was Mental Health Month           

Having lived through April and now May, we are all well aware that Stress Awareness Month was aptly named. We’re not talking regular everyday stress: getting to work on time, taking care of your family and friends, paying bills and taxes, and meeting deadlines.

Since life turned dark in a heartbeat, everyday stress is now in our rear view mirror. Acute stress is a very different animal.

Suddenly, we find ourselves living a nightmare: Contagion meets Twilight Zone. The familiar patterns, habits, and routines that guided us through life have been ripped away. Our map of reality feels like London after the Blitz. (Unlike the Germans’ bombing during World War II, we hear no warning sirens nor are there any truly safe places to seek shelter.)

Trauma Isn’t a Bad Hair Day

We tend to say “trauma” whenever we mean “upsetting.” But trauma is not a bad hair day.

Trauma means you have been exposed to sudden, unexpected death. Directly or indirectly, trauma imprints the soul with awareness that life itself is uncertain, fragile and beyond human understanding. And yes, you can be traumatized by the terror you see online and on TV. Vicarious traumatization (VT) is real and leads to acute stress reactions.

Normal Person, Normal reactions to an Abnormal Situation

Even first responders and emergency medical personnel who go hand-to-hand with life and death on the job suffer from acute stress. It doesn’t mean they are not professional. It means they are human. The International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICIS) provides peer support for first responders after disturbing calls where they were unable to save lives. As a member of a critical incident debriefing team at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School after the school shooting in which 34 people were shot, I was privileged to work with leaders in the field who provided information about acute stress and how to cope with the unthinkable. “You may never understand why this happened,” said Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, a former paramedic and founder of ICISF, “but in time you can come to terms with it.”

The first step in coming to terms with a mass fatality event like the pandemic is to accept that your reactions are unique to you and that you are a normal person having normal reactions to an abnormal situation.

COVID-19 Stress

Here are some of the main signs of acute stress:

o   Shock

o   Feeling flooded with horror and helplessness whenever you think about the pandemic.

o   Fear

o   Sense of dread

o   Feeling unsafe in your own skin

o   Hypervigilance: expecting another shoe to drop

The good news is that acute stress usually resolves on its own.

We wake up and start our day without feeling dread about what happened.  Our normal appetites and sleeping patterns resume. (Acute stress that resurfaces or continues months or years after the event itself becomes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/PTSD, at which time it is important to seek professional help.)

COVID-19 stress: 5 things you need to know

  1. Find YOUR calm.

Fear is a comorbid infection that damages our immune system and can overload our health services by unnecessary 911 calls. Finding your calm is essential for surviving in a climate of fear. Set aside five minutes a day to go to your place of inner safety. This is a private place within where only you can go. Close your eyes and ask your mind to take you back to a place and time when you remember feeling relaxed and safe. Make a fist and as you tighten your fist, allow those warm, good feelings of calm and safety to build until they reach a peak and fade away like a chord of music. Open your eyes and release your fist. To get back to your place of inner safety, make that fist and say, “Take me back.” (Your fist becomes a bio switch that activates molecules of emotional memories that are the best antidote to COVID-19 stress.)

  1. Eat regular meals. Choose healthy food and do not eat alone.

Avoid sugar, junk food, alcohol and caffeine. Never eat at your desk. Have a virtual dinner party or ‘meet’ a colleague for lunch. If you have to eat by yourself, turn away from your screens and look out the window. Remember: choosing your food will help you regain some sense of control.

  1. Meet your three elephants.

As the pandemic continues our fears can escalate. Embedded in our unconscious, they often show up as three elephants: loss of control, loss of safety and loss of identity. In facing the first elephant, it’s important to become mindful of patterns, habits and routines that we can control. Calming the second elephant means finding patterns, habits and rituals that help us feel safer. It can be a chair or couch, a garden, or a route where you take daily walks. Spend time in your place of inner safety.  This will reinforce your sense of self. Write or say this affirmation: “Despite the chaos and destruction around me, I can find calm and safety within myself.”

  1. Start a happiness jar.

Take an actual jar, glass, or bowl and label it “HAPPINESS.” Keep it someplace where you will see it throughout the day. Place scrap paper and pens or markers next to the jar. Write down one thing that makes you happy per piece of paper. Put the “happy papers” into the jar. Wait at least a month before you empty the jar and read your “happy papers” aloud.

  1. Hold on to hope.

We are living through a painful, turbulent cycle. But all cycles in nature come to an end and new life begins. This, too, is a law of nature.

“Even the withered branch grows again

                      And the sunken moon returns.

                      Wise ones who ponder this

                       Are not troubled in adversity.”  — Hindu proverb


A journalist for the first 20 years of her career, Laurie Nadel, Ph. D., is a specialist in acute stress, trauma and anxiety issues. She is considered a thought leader in the emerging field of acute stress and PTSD. From trauma to addictions—through workshops, lectures, and one-on-one sessions—her focus is helping people find new ways to heal.

She is the author of “The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes”(foreword by Dan Rather).

Reach her at: or 1-516-368-4552.