Organized Chaos and The New ‘Normal’

When Nina Westbrook’s college boyfriend — now husband — was drafted into the NBA, she knew her expectations for a “normal” life were out the window. And while the story of going off to college, playing a sport, and dating a fellow athlete feels pretty standard for the American experience (depending on who you are and where you come from), the life Nina knows now is far from the picture her initial expectations had painted. Since her time playing basketball and studying psychology at UCLA, she’s been thrust into the public eye, all while pursuing a master’s degree (clinical psychology, naturally, with an LMFT certification), working as a therapist for multiple organizations, starting businesses, and becoming a mother. A wild ride, to say the least.

And despite that gap between expectation and reality — and despite that she’s caring for three babies under three (!!) — the woman exudes pure joy and optimism. She’s mind blowingly level headed, calm, and collected. A chat with Nina is the conversational equivalent of 100 milligrams of CBD.

Svn Space had the chance to catch up with Nina and pick her brain on navigating mental health in 2020. Nina’s seen her fair share of curveballs in her own life — and counseled those who’ve seen tough and unexpected times, too.

Her experience began with providing therapy for children and adolescents with everything from major depression and PTSD to grief, bipolar disorder, and sexual traumas — and it gave her the on-the-ground tools to help those with the most difficult experiences navigate their way back to happiness. She then flipped the demographic (adding to the range of her psychological work) and worked with adults over 55 at INTEGRIS Generations, an inpatient program in Oklahoma. Nina then started working with a teen dropout prevention and recovery program called Project HOPE, so when it comes to handling some major speedbumps that life can throw your way, Nina has seen a lot, and has helped patients young and old through it all.

So — how do we not just manage stress (and expectations), but truly find joy in this era built on a foundation of unmet expectations and existential dread, rife with racial injustice, police violence, a vicious presidential race and a global pandemic? (Are you sweating just reading that sentence? Same)

It’s actually not ludicrous to have optimism in times of despair. In fact, Nina would encourage it. “We are all responsible for our own mental health, wellbeing, and happiness,” she told us. “We have to make conscious decisions to steer away from the negative.”

“You have to be optimistic. You have to make a conscious choice to think and believe that things can be better — that things are going to be better.”

Examining Expectations

A major challenge many of us are facing in 2020 is the disparity between what we expected from the year, and how it’s actually going. In other words, expectation versus reality — extreme edition.

“Our expectations generate ideas that we must do or should do something,” said Nina. “What that does in turn is create a sense of anxiety for us; you’re setting yourself up for failure.” She noted that this is especially true if we’re particularly rigid with our expectations.

Nina joked that as an A-type, super organized, plan-everything kind of personality, she — at one point — had a particularly difficult time adjusting when things didn’t go according to plan and didn’t follow the expected path. But (perhaps thanks to an extensive psychological education) she has learned to adapt. She recommends leaving the ‘shoulda-coulda’ and aughts behind, and adjusting your expectations for yourself and people around you (and not being overly rigid with plans).

Another reminder from Nina: “We’re harder on ourselves than the people we love.” So on that note, she encourages you to “give yourself grace and compassion.”

Do you have an expectation that you can fix things? Fix or control your situation, or the world around you? Take a step back and assess. “Assess what’s actually going on so that we can make the responsible or rational decisions or choices to move forward in a healthy and more realistic way,” she said. “I think that it’s hard when there’s so much going on and we don’t necessarily have control over it and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Take inventory: What’s happening, what has your role been in it, how much control have you had over it? The answer you get, more likely than not, is that a lot of this is beyond our control.”


Reflecting on “Normal”

Another thing we keep hearing is “the new normal.” Right? How many times have you heard that verbatim phrase? We want things to “go back to normal.” We want to be “normal.” But … what the hell IS normal?

“The concept of normal and striving for normalcy — we have to be aware of this,” said Nina. “It’s elusive, because, what even is normal?”

Pursuit of something abstract and undefined like this is quite similar to the pursuit of perfection, which again relates back to this theme of expectations — in this case, unrealistic expectations. You may not consider yourself a perfectionist, but if you’re pursuing “normal” … that in itself is the pursuit of some iteration of perfection.

“The idea of perfectionism and normalcy is something that we all strive for, but it has a lot to do with our expectations, and how those expectations guide us. We don't necessarily understand or know that we’re striving for something,” she said. “A perfectionist might know they want something to be just so, but the idea of striving for normalcy is something that we have to be really aware of. What is normal anyways? It depends on who you ask — and they’ll tell you from their perspective what they believe normal is, so what exactly is it that you’re striving for?”

Wanting something to be ‘normal’ is another way to generate anxiety for yourself; she said this is something that we all deal with on a daily basis. “Grasping for this idea, expecting anything, can lead to so much anxiety. It’s placing so much pressure on ourselves and people around us — when in reality we don’t have any control over the way things are going to turn over.”


Reframing and Repetition

Adjusting those expectations and thinking about your situation from different angles can help with a powerful practice: reframing.

For example, Nina called attention to a divide that came up during quarantine — how we think we (and those around us) should be spending our time. You’ve likely seen the memes and text graphics on Instagram that say something like “It’s a pandemic, not a f*cking productivity contest.” And still others that emphasize all the ways you can make the most of your time at home.

“‘Productivity’ is a very controversial word right now,” she said. “For some people their mental wellness is wrapped in comfort from accomplishing something — there’s nothing wrong with that. For others, the idea of productivity might have the complete opposite effect … they might feel as though they’re not being as productive as they’d like, and therefore it diminishes their positive mental wellbeing.”

Reframing and context play a big role here. Neither approach is wrong, though some of the framing might lead you to believe otherwise. She recommends also thinking about how you would treat someone you love very much if they were going through your experience. If they were in your shoes, how would you speak to them? What would you advise them to do? This reframing can help you be gentler with yourself.

You might also see the same advice over and over, on social media or in articles. This also comes down to reframing ideas. “This whole idea of repetition — sharing [ideas] in a different way — we all have time to sit, think, and revisit what’s going on in our lives and how we feel about it... all the changes we want to make moving forward. But everyone's moving at their own pace. We’re all going through something, but we’re all in a very different process of dealing with it.”

She said ideas around wellness are inherently repetitive, especially right now. “It’s because so many people’s mental health and mental wellness are being challenged right now; we’re being challenged to take care of it,” she said. The repetition with slight tweaks and different ways of framing help those messages to sink in for different people.

“We have to do things to minimize stress, anxiety, and depression levels,” she said. “We need to figure out how to utilize the tools we have available to us to cope and deal; we don’t have all the distractions we’re typically used to having that keep us in this robotic mode. We’re being forced to deal with all of it.”


Allowing For Optimism

“We can’t forget that we’re allowed grace; we have to find joy in chaos.”

Nina emphasized that finding joy doesn’t invalidate the pain or struggle, and you’re allowed to find joy in dark times. This is something many people struggle with; the idea of allowing joy in times of grief, struggle, and pain. “Everybody is deserving of joy and happiness regardless of circumstances that are happening outside of their own selves,” she said. “Even people who are suffering and going through really difficult times; business owners, people who have had loss of family to COVID-related events … so many of us are going through such a difficult time right now, my family included.”

“We can’t forget that we’re allowed grace; we have to find joy in chaos.”

If you’re not going through the exact experience as someone else, it doesn’t mean you’re not deserving of joy. Nina also notes that there is a major silver lining in all of this: “What’s interesting about what’s going on right now is that we’re all going through this together. Even though it’s such a tough time, we can find comfort in a way and take refuge in knowing that we’re not alone in this. There are so many people who’ve been impacted by the events that have been going on with racial and social injustice, and so many people who've been affected by the COVID pandemic; we can take refuge in knowing that there are people sharing those exact same feelings and sharing those exact same concerns, facing the exact same uncertainty that you are.”

“During this time, this is one of the ways we can embrace this situation and find some kind of hope and motivation and inspiration out of it. Keep fighting alongside everyone else, and all the people around us. Continue to strive, continue to look forward and know we will come out of this on the other end even better and stronger.”

“You have to be optimistic. You have to make a conscious choice to think and believe that things can be better — that things are going to be better.”


Prioritize Mental Wellbeing

Another silver lining Nina shared: “We all understand and have decided to prioritize our mental health and mental wellbeing so that we can all be better individuals; better for ourselves, for our families, for our work, for our friends.”

She noted that “People don’t necessarily understand that mental health is a huge part of our daily lives.” Mental health affects all of us. And while sharing that we all have different methods and tools that make us feel good, Nina said “We all have to be able to know where we are our best, and live in that. Do what it is that makes us feel happy and comfortable.We should take advantage of this time to figure out what it is for each of us that makes us ‘go’ and feel like we’re in a more positive mental state,” she said.

“For people who’ve been previously dealing with depression or anxiety, especially if you’re not getting support, you might feel more isolated.” This is a compounded situation — and it’s imperative that you get the help and resources you need.


Celebrate Small Victories

Don’t sweat the small stuff, but do celebrate the small victories like they’re colossal wins. Nina shared that one of her biggest triumphs is when she gets all three babies in bed at the end of the day.

“I’m really pleased and excited with myself every time I get my kids all down and they’re all sleeping every single night,” she told us. “It’s a small victory and it’s something that happens every single day, but I really look forward to it and I feel super accomplished. I’m gonna lean into that! That positive factor keeps pushing me and motivating me, leading into the next day.”

“We can’t forget to factor in how amazing it is that when you’re still able to pull something off — like nailing a big presentation and still being home to put the kids to bed, or whatever that may be for you. Thinking about ‘What did you accomplish today?’ No matter how big or small,” is ultra important, she said. “Keep things in perspective.”

Taking mental inventory of the positives and small victories is essential. And Nina’s advice on that? “Don’t have a timeline! Just live in the now. Just live in it, and take things day by day.”

“We have to find joy in chaos. We’re laughing, we’re finding joy amidst the uncertainty and the unknown; It’s important that we continue to do that. It’s just good for the soul.”

Written by Dominique Astorino

Wellness Expert and Svn Space Podcast Host and Contributing Editor Dominique holds bylines at POPSUGAR, Brit+Co, SHAPE, Svn Space and Huffington Post Wellness covering everything from health, fitness, and nutrition to crystals and CBD.

1 comment

Thank you so much for sharing this. I have felt very overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and sad because of all the recent events. This is very helpful because it shows me ways to cope with my stress and anxiety. I can’t thank you enough.

Avery Freeman June 25, 2020

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