Time for a gentle reminder that the stress and anxiety we are facing is likely to bring out our “less refined” and highly conditioned coping patterns. It’s ok! You aren’t alone! Knowing this helps us cope because we can 1. better understand ourselves and therefore 2. make intentional choices about how to manage in a self-supporting way and 3. forgive ourselves knowing its totally normal and nothing to be feel shame about. When we are under stress, we react in ways that are deeply ingrained and conditioned. Maybe before Covid-19 you were consciously working to change or “improve” some of your behaviors and responses? The unprecedented nature of facing a pandemic has certainly thrown a wrench into the system. As many of us are aware, neuroscience teaches that the fight, flight, freeze, and appease reactions have evolved to kick into gear automatically and quickly in times of danger – to kick in without us having to consciously think through our actions. They are deeply conditioned patterns of response that have, in the past, somehow “protected us” (even if they were maladaptive and even if that protection was only temporary psychological protection.) When we face stress, any new strategies, approaches, tools or positive coping mechanisms we have been learning to use that aren’t yet fully integrated can easily give way to previous patterns that “worked” for us in the past. And of course, by “worked” I mean gave us an unconscious psychological sense of safety, even if they were not the most effective in outcome. This is NOT a failing, it is natural.
Make the Invisible, Visible
It takes deliberate reflection to make our invisible patterns of stress response visible. Take some time to review for yourself how things are going for you. When you do this, if you discover any unwanted patterns emerging, be patient with yourself. Regressing to old coping mechanisms is a natural phenomenon – it is what takes the least energy because it is a form of autopilot. Be compassionate and forgive yourself – those patterns were your way of making it through stressful times in the past – you may not want to return to them; however, you don’t have to feel shame about them either. They were what you knew how to do at the time and in some ways, they got you through what you needed to get through. You now have a choice if those are the same patterns you want to use again. If not, thank them for their past service and think about how you want to move forward in a new way. Maybe you are discovering your “old” patterns for the first time… Ask yourself, what might be small, simple ways to support myself?
It is understandable that we all want to “escape” the anxiety of this pandemic. Remember that when we numb the tough stuff, we can also inadvertently numb the good too. We can practice noticing our emotions and the patterns that follow, paying attention to what is happening in our bodies, giving ourselves patience and compassion knowing emotions don’t last forever, then making conscious choices to use self-supportive mindsets and behaviors. (Sometimes it’s helpful to think about what you would say to a dear loved one.) If you don’t feel ready or able to figure all that out by yourself, reach out to friends, family, mentors or a therapist for support.
Common patterns of stress response that you might be reverting to include:
Over-functioning or overworking as a way to stay numb and distracted. Even if you say you’re “happily working from home,” are you making sure to give yourself space? Are your work hours expanding into the nights and evenings in a way that is more about keeping yourself away from silence or rest? Do you have an urgency about tasks that could be done at a slower pace? Are you failing to connect with those around you who might be craving your connection? Are you asking for the support you need? There has been an explosion of messages about how to use this time to “up level” – learn new skills, accomplish new tasks, get more productive, complete new projects – while the idea can feel inspirational and empowering, we also need at least some of this time to stop, slow down, rest, reflect and heal. Give yourself permission. Sure, work in new ways if that’s helpful, but be aware you don’t need to compulsively fill all of the gaps – those gaps are healthy so give yourself space. Of course, I gratefully acknowledge that some of you are “overworking” not as a maladaptive way of coping, but because you are at the front lines of this challenge – in health care and other essential services – and you are helping to take care of our community. If this is you, I have only gratitude and love!
Another form of over functioning is becoming overly-controlling and rigid. Do you have your days, your team’s days, your kids’ days scheduled to the minute? Are you experiencing even more anxiety when you or others can’t fulfill that exacting plan? Do you feel pressured to be all things to all people? A schedule can be a helpful structure, yet if it is creating its own pressures it may be time to loosen the reins for yourself and others whom you are expecting to live up. This can be especially true for those of us in leadership positions because our sense of “responsibility” can get skewed into a sense of needing to control. This is a classic over-functioning scenario; remind yourself that, especially now, you don’t have to have it all “in control.”
Under-functioning. Shutting down, procrastinating, not communicating or going into helpless mode can also be a protective pattern for some. Certainly, going inside yourself can be a valid way to renew, reflect and rejuvenate, however pay attention if you think you’re shutting down as a way to escape in response to anxiety. Giving yourself a rest and time to renew is legitimate and we all need that right now; however, are you neglecting your own care, are you overcome by a sense of loss of control? Finding new ways to have agency in your own daily routine can give you a sense of power – even if it is a simple task like making your bed each day, taking a scheduled break for lunch or finding any one ritual to include in your day that YOU have the power over. Connect to others and express your experiences; this release and processing of emotion is important – even if through a journal that isn’t shared with others.
Overeating, drinking, shopping or other behaviors to numb. I would bet a large sum of money that many people have moved to a high carb, high sugar, added alcohol diet in the last month (I’ve started buying cookies and chips again – ugh!) Others are online shopping to fill their evenings. We revert to these kinds of behaviors (and others) because they are easy, they are deeply conditioned and they create an internal sense of comfort – at least in the moment – that we all unconsciously crave right now. Be compassionate with yourself, try to find ways to interrupt the old behaviors and re-start healthy habits.
Name It to Tame It
The first step in shifting your stress response is acknowledging and naming your own pattern; when you name it, you make it “visible,” when it’s visible it’s changeable. I often talk with clients about the “Embodied Skill Development Process” of growing from one set of integrated behaviors to a new set of integrated behaviors and what that process looks like – it takes time and attention, energy, repetition, resources and resilience, so be gentle with yourself if you find you have reverted to any “less than ideal” patterns. See them, thank them and then continue to work to replace them. If you need to, talk to a therapist via telemedicine. To paraphrase Maya Angelou – do the best you can until you can do better, then do better.
Blessings to each of you!