For seven months we have been running a race with no clear beginning or end. Unlike a natural disaster which has clear pre-warning, impact and recovery phases, a pandemic is different with no clear warning, impact or recovery in sight. This indefinite uncertainty has stretched our “surge capacities”- those mental and physical mechanisms that mobilize us for short-term acute stress. This makes it harder to “run the race set before us” knowing that faith and hope are the glue that can hold us together when there is no clear finish line.
We are in the midst of a cortisol baptism like no other stress immersion we have experienced. This stress hormone in our brains mobilizes one to fight, freeze, or flee an adverse event. The challenge today is how this event keeps on giving with no clear end in sight. The result is a heightened sense of stress that diminishes our physical, emotional, cognitive and social sensibilities. Fatigue, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, anxious, increased frustration, impatience, withdrawal and sleep interruption are just a few of the normal responses to sustained stress over time. The sprint we thought we were going to run in March has been replaced with a marathon that has no finish line. Our brains are conditioned to recalibrate around short term acute disasters but there is no playbook for a pandemic.
When indefinite uncertainty as a way of living is normalized the question of adjusting and adapting become paramount. The devastation of this pandemic beyond the untold illness and death is that so many systems aren’t working as they normally do. If you are feeling down and anxious you are in good company as one-third of Americans are reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression or both according to a May Census Bureau study. Research on disaster and trauma focuses primarily on what’s helpful for people during the recovery period but we’re not close to recovery yet. We are grieving multiple losses, real and imagined, while managing or being managed by the ongoing impact and trauma and uncertainty. Our denial, anger, bargaining, depression and eventual acceptance are all major components of facing loss. We are asking ourselves, how do to live into and beyond COVID-19?
For those who wear glasses, an analogy of proper lenses might resonate. A fly fisherman fishing on a sun drenched trout stream wearing his regular prescription glasses will see beautiful running water with the sun reflecting off the water. Change those glasses to Polaroid lenses and the fly fisherman sees not only the beautiful stream but elegant rainbow trout swimming below the running water’s surface. Changing your lenses can make all the difference as to what you will see. So, what are some lenses we can clip- on to our COVID glasses that can help us expand what we are seeing in these extraordinary days.
To live in this uncharted territory we must first embrace that it is ok not to be ok right now. Disillusionment is normal and trying to be strong can be counter-productive. The more we resist our feelings about what is happening in us the more it will persist. Second, we are invited to radically accept that life is different right now. You might be thinking well of course it is! I am suggesting a radical acceptance that recognizes the present as the new normal, rather than living life as if things will return to pre-Covid. A third lens to try on that can help you see more clearly is to expect less of yourself these days. To continue to expect yourself to function pre-COVID is to deny neurologically the impact of stress hormones in our brain over a long period. Fourth, with a national election in view, racial injustices, parents and children managing work and school changes and COVID-19 decrease your media calories and fast as needed. Ingesting too much media right now will only add unneeded cortisol to your system. Fifth, increase your resilience by committing to;
- Good sleep hygiene
- Healthy eating
- Limit alcohol use,
- Deep diaphragmatic breathing
- Saying no/ decrease expectations of yourself.
So many of the rituals that hold our lives around and holds us together like religious service attendance, weddings, funerals, graduations, socializing with friends and family and vacations have been disrupted. Stay in the moment and let go like water moving down a stream can keep you grounded in what is rather than what is not. This grateful approach to life is good for our immune system and our cognitive and emotional fitness.
We are all a little worn-out these days from wearing our COVID-19 glasses. What I have suggested are some evidence-based practices when added to your daily routine can increase your stamina and provide some new perspective to your tired brain that has been on high alert these past seven months. There will be a post-COVID but in the meantime we are invited to adapt and find the light that shines in the darkness.
Reference: Tara Haelle, August 17, 2020,” Your Surge Capacity Is Depleted-It’s Why You Feel Awful,” Elemental.