I first heard this term, “new normal”, when I was taking a choreographed weightlifting class from a favorite instructor. Whenever we increased our weight lifted, she called it our “new normal”. At that time, I never thought of applying it to chronic pain. Soon after, my clients started coming in and saying, “When will I get back to normal?” I borrowed the term from my weightlifting class instructor and told them that they can’t worry about normal, they have to work with their “new normal”.
It is counterproductive and very upsetting to try to achieve a state of pre-pain, pre-illness, or pre-injury. Our minds and bodies have evolved in many ways since the illness or injury occurred so trying to get ourselves to a pre-event state is almost impossible. We can, however, improve our condition from the state we are in now, or our “new normal,” by simply working toward our present health.
One of the first great teachers of cognitive therapy, Dr. Aaron Beck (Beck, 1993), taught that depression is linked to thinking about the past and the future rather than the present. Similarly, the current mindfulness approaches focus on living, thinking and acting in the present as an antidote to most mental health problems. Alcoholics Anonymous (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001) inculcates the idea that most problems are related to dwelling on the past or trying to control the future. In other words, most psychological and healthy living teachers and manuals advocate focusing only on the present moment as the best way to cope with daily concerns.
In pain and illness management, focusing on the present is the only way to go. While the past is over and sometimes traumatizing if there has been an injury or severe illness, the future is unpredictable and not under our control. The present moment is the only time we have any influence over; the only time we can decide to take action. So “back to normal” has to leave our vocabulary and be replaced by trying to find “a new normal” that we can live with.
Wanting to get “back to normal,” while understandable, discounts the precious time we are spending coping with our pain and illness today. The work we are doing is valuable, and you are valuable. Sick or well, recovering or suffering, there is meaning and progress even in what appears to be setbacks. We are learning more about our bodies and how to address them each day. Viewing recovery from a chronic illness or pain problem as a fluid path rather than a win or lose, disease or cure model allows us to find satisfaction in learning a new coping technique or physical therapy exercise. It’s a new way to deal with our evolving “new normal.”
It becomes important to measure a “good day” by how much we did with what we had, or what we learned about ourselves rather than against a standard of normalcy or perfection. A “good day” can be learning a new technique to cope with chronic pain, getting support from friends or others in chronic pain, and finding new meaning in our lives.
Rather than looking to return to a previous state, we can find ourselves seeking an improved state where we are coping better with our capabilities, managing stress, and improving our thoughts and moods in the moment. We may find that we are healthier now, paradoxically, than before we became ill or injured!
Beck, Aaron T. Cognitive therapy: Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol61(2), Apr 1993, 194-198. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.61.2.194
Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.