Getting Back to Normal After a Hard Time

After more than a year of running on high alert and feeling the weight of tough daily headlines, is it really possible to just flip a switch now and get back to normal? 

Well, kind of. But after you go through any really hard time, you need a plan. The path forward will be a lot smoother after you have a clear understanding of what just happened in our minds and bodies. With a simple adjustment in how you plan for the next few months, your new normal can be better than ever. 

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Welcome to the Cara Brookins Show, where you’ll find all the tools you need to get unstuck and build a better life. I know what it feels like to need a friend to talk you through the hard stuff. From cleaning off your desk, to building a new desk, or even rebuilding your entire life from scratch, I’ll be here with you for every step. Let’s get moving and build exactly the life you want.

I like a nice, predictable routine most days. My favorite coffee cup, a quiet breakfast, and a familiar to-do list. Even if what I’m doing from day to day is slightly different, there’s a really comfortable, pattern to how I get my work done on the computer, on my house, and even on the break times when I’m reading or doing a creative side project. 

It’s funny but even when I travel, I have my travel routines that turn every single hotel room into my little personal home away from home. Our brains thrive on this predictable way of moving through our day because it gives us some control and that makes us feel safe. 

Don’t get me wrong, I also really like to get out and try new things, take some risks, see new places and do things that are all the way different from any normal pattern. There’s a thrill in that. I really love a good adventure!

But then, it feels every bit as good to sigh back into my routine at home. You know what I mean. We all do this same thing to some level because we are really good at forming habits. In fact, habits are good for us. They are like amazing little brain shortcuts. Here’s what I mean by that. 

Doing a thing over and over again in the same way creates a comfortable pathway in your brain. It’s a lot like if you walked the same way through the forest every day from your house to your grandmother’s house. Your feet create a path, and staying on the path is easier. If you wander off of it, the grass is tall, and picker bushes will pull at your clothes. You’ll have to walk around trees, duck under branches. Staying on the path is faster, cleaner, and takes less energy. And it’s safer, too. The tall grass could be hiding snakes, spiders, scorpions, even a wolf that could hurt or even eat you. 

Here’s another thing you may not have thought about. You’re less likely to get lost or sidetracked on the path. It takes you straight to your destination. Get the point. Forest paths save you a lot of time. And you may not have thought of it this way before, but so do the habit paths in our brain.

A habit is like our brain on autopilot. When we stay on the usual path, we won’t get side tracked, or waste a lot of time thinking of new ways to do something. You get out of bed, slip on the same robe, reach in the same spot in the cabinet for the coffee, that you put in your same mug. Measure the oatmeal without having to think about any of this. 

In fact you can carry on an entirely different thought process about the day ahead or about the news show you’re listening too or TikTok videos or whatever, WHILE you’re doing your morning routine, because you barely have to think about any of it. You can just let your day flow, down the well-used predictable path in your brain. 

That’s what I mean today by habits. Your daily routine is really a series of habits. And they’re all handled on a sort of partial auto pilot so we burn up less energy. 

But what happens when this system is interrupted? 

In our forest example, normal was the way you walked every single day to grandma’s house. The path may have been really crooked at the base of that one hill, but you were fine with that, in fact you did that on purpose to avoid that cave where the rattle snakes live. But then, one spring a horrible flood meant you now have to walk an extra mile to find a safe place to cross the river. 

After a while, you get used to the new route. The grass is worn down, it’s safe, you don’t have to think about where to go because it’s a new path. But you don’t like going that extra mile, so the second the water recedes, you’re back on that old path. Maybe you have to knock down some briar bushes that started growing in your path, or move some rocks that washed into that low spot, but returning to normal isn’t difficult, you’re back on that old path and happy in no time. What a relief!

That’s what getting back to normal means most of the time in our lives. 

But what happens when instead of a spring flood, or instead of a quick business trip or vacation. What happens when every single part of your normal life is turned upside down. When all your routines—your habits—are disrupted at once for an extended period of time. 

When a long illness, death, divorce, or maybe a global pandemic pulls the rug right out from under you. So you no longer have a daily commute or a school drop off or whatever part of your world went topsy turvy. When you have to do absolutely everything differently during a wild transition time. How do you gently return to the way things were before?

After the dust has settled, or the vaccines have been distributed, is it really possible to just flip a switch and go back to normal? Can you find your way back to that original, comfortable old routine that served you so well for so long before you went through this hard time?  

Well, kinda. But probably not in exactly the way you’re thinking. The good news is though, if you know what to expect and set up a few simple ways to reframe what normal means to you, then you can move from the topsy-turvy mess of a really hard time directly into the new, more promising routine of tomorrow. And that’s what we’re going to plan today. 

Let’s start with this idea of normal, which is hard to define, but I think we can get pretty close to a definition for our purposes today. Normal is just the   of what your ordinary routine felt like on a good day. Before you were tossed into some alternate reality but a tough time. 

Think back to that routine now, and about how that became the way you did things in the first place. It was custom made by you for you. Your habits were the result of a million different things that happened in your life. Things you tried and liked, like a mocha latte and strawberry yogurt, and things you tried and didn’t like, maybe expresso and avocado toast. It was created by your job requirements and family expectations, too. 

Your work and family life had a pattern to them back in normal times. Staying on your usual path was connected to your perception of safety, from financial safety to physical safety. And every single move you made to maintain these patterns, to even create your path in the first place, was all driven by things that happened in your life from childhood to adulthood. The good and the bad. (These things never fully disappear—and thank goodness they don’t because they make you YOU.) 

This is super easy to follow so far, right? You created and had some measure of control over your normal life pattern and habits. The ones you want to get back to. But this is where things start to get complicated. 

If you look back a few years, it’s obviously that this normal routine hasn’t stayed 100% consistent. There are changes now and then over time. Maybe you went through a weird phase where you used to have peanut butter toast every morning. Or—even weirder—you used to hate coffee. Maybe you worked a night shift. You used to live in a bigger city, or a rural middle-of-nowhere spot. You’ve gone through changes before. And slowly, over time, you wore a new path and created new habits.

And because you’ve gone through changes in your schedule before, you feel like this time should be similar. You’re resilient. You shouldn’t struggle with finding your way back to normal. And if you’re not prepared for how different things will feel when you’re looking for normal after you go through a major hard time, it will really throw you for a loop.

Here’s why this time it feels so much different. Because this time, when you have a major life event, all your routines are disrupted at once. Everything feels off and uncomfortable. Everything feels more difficult. And that’s not just a feeling. Everything IS more difficult. 

You don’t have a brain autopilot for any of the things you’re doing. So you have to think a lot harder, make some mistakes, go back and do over. Now we’re always doing that in some parts of our lives, of course, but when the most basic parts of our life that we always did on autopilot have to be created from scratch, we are essentially blazing brand new trails through a wild forest. 

And that means we are burning a lot more energy to get through what look like simple tasks, just because the way we’re doing the tasks is new to us. We need all of our mind and body engaged to get each thing done. 

That’s one of the reasons you feel more tired when you have changes to your routines. You’re actually working harder. And even if it seems like there are only small things changed in your routine, that energy expenditure for all those little things really ads up. 

We all really felt this a few weeks into COVID lockdowns. After we realized it wasn’t just a temporary exciting change from our schedules. And we feel it after an extended illness, divorce or death too. It’s a fatigue that zaps us and makes us feel weak and we’re usually pretty hard on ourselves for that. But if you think of it in terms of that forest path, you wouldn’t be hard on yourself if it took you longer to get to grandma’s house on a day when your path was blocked and you unexpectedly had to make your way through the tall grass, picker bushes, and trees. You’d expect to be more tired. And if a big bad wolf chased you part of the way, you would cut yourself some slack for the fatigue after you settled in at Grandma’s house. 

The same is true with any kind of really life changing tough time we go through. It isn’t just the routines that change. Toss in some danger, like a scary illness, or financial trouble, or a doubled work load because you’re home schooling kids while working from home, and you can see how justifiable this fatigue really is. 

You’re creating new habits. New routine. You’re blazing new trails, and whether that’s with a machete or a new breakfast spread, it’s going to burn up a lot of extra energy, and you’re going to feel that. 

Let’s take a short break, then we’ll take a hard look at how to get back to normal.

. . .

I want you to stop and think for a minute about how great it would feel if you could have an idea for a project and then easily just start doing it. Pick up the pen or the hammer. Build the website or hang a sign over your door. Just get moving and do it. 

Why is that so hard, just taking that first step? Why do we end up so paralyzed that most of our ideas land in the “someday” folder.

That’s what my free “Get Unstuck” Challenge is all about. 

I’ve done a lot of things in my life that are really big. I’ve published eight books, built a career writing software, a public speaking business, and I built an entire house with my kids by watching YouTube videos. 

But this challenge right here, this is one of the most important things I’m doing. Because I know how frustrating it is to really want a better life. To maybe even have an exact idea of what you want to do. And to just feel too stuck or too burned out to get there. 

And I know too that it’s possible for you to do what I did. To overcome that feeling of being stuck. It’s 100% possible for you to overcome that stuck feeling and to build exactly the life you want. 

I’ll take you step by step with a series of four video challenges. And at the end you’ll be ready to finally get started on your big project. 

Go to Cara and click on “get unstuck” to sign up for this free Get Unstuck challenge. 

. . .

We’ve talked a lot today about how we set up new routines, but wait, aren’t we talking about how to get back to normal—our old routines—about how to go back to that after that tough time is OVER. Well, yes, but it’s actually almost the same thing, at least from a psychological standpoint. 

Because when you go through a really hard time that affects all of your routines and schedule, you establish new habits. You may not like them, and you tell yourself they’re only temporary—you know that from a logical standpoint, but the part of your brain that is running through these routines on autopilot doesn’t know that.

 That part of your brain is just doing its job making sure you use as little energy as possible, and automating the repetitive things so you can focus your brain on more important things. The part of your brain that manages these habit paths is as comfortable on the new path as it was on the old one as soon as it’s all worn in and well known. Uh oh. 

So what do you think happens when all of a sudden it’s time to get back to normal, and you just wake up one day and set off on normal old path? You guessed it. 

Your brain says, nope. Nah-uh. That path is all overgrown now it would take more work to go down that old one than the new one. More brain work, I mean. Because the old normal is probably easier in a lot of ways. But when we’re talking the straight-up opinion of your habit-forming brain. It always, always, prefers to stick with the routine you’re doing rt now. Even when that isn’t what the more logical parts of your brain want at all. 

So when you start trying to go back to normal and you feel this resistance, your brain fights you a little bit, and you’re fatigued and irritable and everything feels off, the tendency is just to be really down on yourself. 

After all, you’ve been saying for a long time that you’ll be so happy when you can just do the normal things again. You’ll never complain again. You’ll just be riding on a wave of euphoria. But what’s actually likely to happen when you get back on a normal work schedule, and the kids are on a normal school schedule, and you’re home for breakfast again or whatever your routine is, what’s actually likely to happen is that instead of just being happy all day, you’re probably going to feel extra tired, and unfocused. Maybe a little disoriented, and that’s frustrating because you expect it to just feel good. 

When people don’t understand why they feel this way, this can turn into outright depression.

But now that you know what’s actually happening in your head, you can make room for this as you return to normal. Especially because the toughest of tough times mean that at least some part of your life has changed for good. 

Give yourself credit for how much work is taking place behind the scenes. For what’s happening to your brain and body. Because when it comes right down to it, for your habit forming brain, it doesn’t matter if the changes, the new path is because of something good or something bad. Even when you’re returning to what you call normal, there’s a sensation that a rug’s been pulled out from under you. That you’ve been shoved into a rough part of the wilderness and you have to blaze new trails to get back on track again. 

This means that the hard time you’re coming out of right now, the divorce papers are signed, or your job is restarting after COVID, or you’ve moved past the stand-still stage of grief. No matter what the hard thing is, when we have this serge of Euphoria for getting back to normal, we can get it all wrong if we don’t take a look at what’s actually happening in your brain through all of this. 

Difficult times affect us on a neurobiological level. Every part of your mind and body have some effects from a time of chaos and stress. That was true when your ancient cave brothers and sisters when through a terrible year of famine and drought and were finally headed out to hunt again, and it’s true for you today. 

Your super stressful stage caused a heightened state of arousal and it lasted for a long time. You probably experienced all sorts of things, like trouble sleeping, irritability. Increase in stress habits like drinking, smoking and eating things you know are bad for you. Those were all ways that you dealt with the way your system was chronically dialed up because everything was so unpredictable. 

Those new coping techniques take a while to toss out the window too. Start replacing them with better habits. And give yourself time to really wear them into a path for your new routine. 

So here’s the bottom line.  Here’s how I get back to a new-normal routine after going through a tough time. I take the time to lay out exactly what I want that routine to look like in detail. Because if you just expect your body and mind to somehow naturally fall into the best and healthiest routine, you’ll be disappointed every time. That is just not how we work. This thing we call ‘normal’ is just like absolutely everything in life, you have to set a goal for it if you want to hit it. 

Know what the target is so you can celebrate it on the days you have it right. Chances are, it won’t be 100% back to the old path you used to travel. That’s almost never possible. The landscape has changed. And remember your routine before this tough time was a result of all the things that happened to you up until that point. And that means, it’s inevitable that your new routine will have some new elements added or subtracted depending on what you’ve just been through. 

Your understanding of things has changed a lot. You’ve learned a lot. You’ve improved in a lot of personal ways. And the good news is, you get to take all of that forward with you. And these things will make your life better than ever. 

Set your daily schedule goal. Draw it out. Design your routine. On paper or through a productivity or scheduling app, or whatever feels like it fits in your life. Map out the best path through the forest of your life, and get moving. 

Imagine how amazing your new normal will feel. And as we all return to some of our favorite old normal and bring even better things to the table, imagine how much better our collective world can be. Let’s all maximize the good stuff and leave the bad parts behind. 

Cheers to our new normal! 

And make sure you come right back here next week for a really fun episode called putting your life together, the IKEA way.

Thanks for hanging out with me today, head over to for more (free) tools, and we should connect on social media too. Don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast.