How Do I know I am Back to Normal or Even Normal?

Is there any such thing as normal or "getting back to normal" when we are all so diverse and running patterns?

I was recently talking to Jackie Baxter, creator of the Long Covid podcast, who did a wonderful webinar on the Reset to Thrive programme. She talked on the webinar about how she recovered from on Covid using Buteyko Breathing and cold water swimming and in the late stages of recovery she joined the Fern programme and was reminded that being back to normal doesn't mean you are never unwell and permanently feel good.

Jackie spoke to me before the webinar and actually she was already 95% better when she joined the programme for recovery and she was as healthy as anybody else, but was running perfectionist patterns, thinking she had to be completely well and thriving all the time before she could say she was better and of course running any anxiety about the tiny residue of “symptoms”that was left is not useful. As soon as she recognised that, actually, she is as well as anybody else, she suddenly felt so much better and went on to do whatever she wanted, without caution or anticipating disaster which are patterns that had become so common and “normal”. Often people need to be reminded that they are okay and can get on with life as they have lost track of “normality’ through illness.

If you took a survey of the whole population, the majority of people will say that they don't feel brilliant – they can find somewhere in the body, tiredness, anxiety, stress, pain and other conditions- so it is completely normal not to feel 100% well.

At the end of my book on "Breaking Free: a Guide to Recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Long Covid Symptoms”, I talk about complete recovery because so many people, like Jackie Baxter, run this pattern of believing that they can be 95% recovered but couldn't possibly be completely back to normal. One lady I worked with said she was 95% better but she couldn't possibly play tennis because “she would pay for it”. Another lady said she was completely back to normal except she wouldn't be able to go on long walks. All of these people still held on to the unhelpful belief and terror that “ I can do well but will pay for it if I try to be completely back to normal, doing what other people my age can do”.

Sometimes we have to do some work on that part that is getting in the way of living life fully and completely and sometimes they just need to notice that this little saboteur was still hanging around because they had been in the sickness role for so long, so it has become normal to think like this but it is not useful any longer. Sometimes the trauma of having been ill for so long needs somatic work or reimprinting work or deeper trauma work. This is why I brought in specialist practitioners onto the Reset to Thrive programme to do somatic work for trauma and I do parts and reimprinting work.

So this concept of being “back to normal” when we recover is so fascinating because people have a different concept of what normal is. When we are worried that we're not back to normal and focus on the 5% of the time that we have fatigue or don't feel well, rather than focus on the 95% of the time that we are perfectly well, we restrict our lifestyle and limit ourselves to what we should and shouldn't do. This is why the F for Focus in the Reset to Thrive programme is so important, because we need to be focused on where we are okay and not focus on where we are not okay (which is a typical pattern of perfectionism and anxiety).

The “normal" graph for recovery from any illness looks like this.

Notice that a lot of the time, according to the normal recovery graph, you will feel unwell and that's okay. Whether you are recovering from a heart attack, a stroke, cancer, long Covid, pneumonia or fatigue, having intermittent symptoms is to be expected and it is completely normal; as long as we know it is normal we can progress. When we think there's something wrong with having setbacks, then we can spiral down into a great big black hole very quickly. It is vitally important that we have a healthy belief about what is normal, that we do have ups and downs and we focus on where we are well, where we have been well and WILL be again, in order to progress.

The whole concept of normality has been debated throughout the centuries, most recently by psychologists and sociologists in every aspect of life. The normal distribution curve for intelligence looks like this:

Notice, hardly anybody is actually in the middle and we are all spread out to cross the whole spectrum with about 0.3% at the extreme ends and so “normal” to be diverse, spread across a wide range. The same is true for height, weight and any other human factor. There is no such thing as the average person or an average factor; the mean average is just taking everybody's wide diversity scores (whether it is IQ level or anxiety level ), adding them all together and dividing by the number in the population. It doesn't mean anybody actually has that score, or certainly very few people actually have that score. Current research is showing that we are all spread across different spectrum whether it is anxiety, hypersensitivity, depression and helplessness, hyperactivity, focus /attention or the autistic spectrum. As researchers become more aware of neurodiversity, studies show that far more girls are being diagnosed with hypersensitivity, ADHD or are on the autistic spectrum; it used to be believed that ADHD and autism were very male traits but girls mask signs and have a different way of expressing the conditions.

Norman Doidge, in his brilliant book "How the Brain Changes Itself " shows it is a completely normal process for us to experience anxiety and that we are meant to experience anxiety to alert us to a problem.

Firstly, a part of the brain, called the the orbital frontal cortex, registers a problem it automatically turns on our emotional brain, which makes us feel anxiety and the body is then put into survival mode fight and flight, which we experience as nerves, increased heart rate, over activation and tension. This is how the brain is meant to function when there is a problem; anxiety is a normal reaction and gives us the opportunity to be alerted to a problem, so we don't fall off the cliff or get eaten by the tiger.

A well oiled functioning brain will then very quickly turn on another part of the brain ( called the caudate nucleus) and its job is to assess whether the problem needs to be solved or if it's something we just need to let go of because we can't control it or because it actually isn't that big a deal.

You will naturally get a startle response or feeling of anxiety if you drop a glass and then very quickly you should come up with a solution and let it go, so that you return to your calm baseline. So anxiety is normal, it is how we're meant to function.

The difficulty arises when we become scared of the anxiety (which is called secondary fear) and we keep looping, getting stuck in seeing problems and getting anxious and not moving on. It is very normal for the brain to look for problems because in terms of survival we are meant to be alerted to anything that could be a threat to us, physically or to our identity in a social group. There are 40 times more neural pathways to turn on the survival instinct, experienced as anxiety, fear or hyper vigilance then they are turn it off again and this is normal. The other reason anxiety can stay on is because a real or perceived threat doesn’t go away, so we endlessly react to problems with stress and anxiety, a bit like living in a tiger’s cage. So many people perceive symptoms as a tiger that they can’t escape from and so they become forever triggered into sympathetic arousal and a vicious cycle ensues. People who do “live with a tiger”, someone who makes us feel on edge, need to consider removing the problem because they will be constantly triggered into survival mode, often to the point where they physically or mentally shut down.

A survey conducted by Preeti Vankar in 2022 found that young adults aged between 18 and 24 were more likely to suffer from moderate to severe stress, depression, and anxiety symptoms. That year, around 66 percent of respondents from this age group reported stress-related symptoms, while people 25-34 yr old showed 64% of respondents experienced stress related symptoms dropping to 54% for the next age group. So actually, feeling stressed is normal in western society if we look at it as the most common response. BUT normal doesn’t mean it is healthy or useful.

Our job is to become much better at calibrating problems because most of the time nothing is actually a tiger, it is not life-threatening and we are capable and competent in dealing with it. In my book “Breaking Free: A guide to Recovering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Long Covid Symptoms”, I offer people resources that are needed to become more resilient, able to deal with problems and override the survival brain that forever comes to our rescue.

As human beings of course we have a commonality but we also have individuality and so what is normal for one isn't necessarily normal for another. We know that extraversion- introversion are traits that are identified early on in life and can then be nurtured or shaped by socialisation. We know that conscientiousness is a trait seen very early on in little children and so it is completely normal for them to try their best all the time and to judge themselves according to how well they do everything, whether it is academically, being nice to others, and being a "good person ". People who run perfectionist patterns think that it is completely normal to "have to" do their best and for everything to be absolutely right before they can feel okay, but feeling like it is normal doesn't mean it is healthy. It would it be useful to check out with other people, as Jackie did, whether actually it's only your perception of the event or symptoms that is getting in the way of you "getting back to normal ".

So what do we know now then about being normal? What we know is it's normal to be different, it is normal to be diverse, it is normal not to feel great and it is “normal” to feel stressed in our Western Society but it is not useful or healthy when it is detrimental to our life, our relationships and our well being. So stop focusing on “ being normal” as being symptom and stress free and discover what is right for you; find strategies and support to enable you to function better and to deal with life in a way that serves you and makes life easier and better. Whether you are somewhere on the spectrum of recovery, ADHD, Autism, hypersensitivity, dyslexia, anxiety, self consciousness or any other spectrum, learn to find The Middle Way. 

We are happy to spend time and money on sports, retreats, leisure or spa treatments but wouldn’t it be great to invest in finding your healthy normal, get support to live life the best way you can and invest in a coach, a programme or a book to help you feel better and do life easier? What is your normal? Strive for what makes you feel good and walk your own path, whatever spectrum you are on and know that so many people do recover when they focus on well being.

Until next time, Jan

Categories: : Wellness