Why we're feeling crazy, and how to cope
After eight months of scariness, we’re heading into winter amid the second wave of the pandemic, and a lot of us are staring down the barrel of more lockdowns. How can you not feel overwhelmed?
Full disclosure- there are days when we would like to just pull the blankets over our heads and wake up when it’s all over. But when we feel like that, we’ve found the best antidote, besides being grateful for all that we do have, including our health and wonderful clients and friends like yourselves, is to get some perspective and understanding of why we are feeling the way we are. And even more interesting, why we are doing the things we’re doing.
Humans are equipped by nature to respond efficiently to a single crisis event at a time. But when the crisis continues for any length of time and other stressors pile on top of it, it becomes a chronic condition.
Erik Zillmer, a licensed clinical psychologist, and professor of neuropsychology from Drexel University in Philadelphia says, “Our defensive systems are designed to prepare us for short bursts of emergency preparedness. These days, however, we’re in a more constant state of emergency, which compels us to keep trying to adapt. This creates stress and anxiety, which is cumulative and contagious.”
Crisis fatigue is not a clinical diagnosis, but it is a ‘real’ condition. We’re afraid for our health, our loved ones, our jobs, the economy, our safety (civil unrest), and our relationships. It can paralyze us in making even the simplest decisions and often shows up in anxiety, irritability, insomnia or oversleeping, depression, overeating, overmedicating, etc., etc.
Here’s a statistic for you: according to a July 2020 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US, the average workday is 48.5 minutes longer than before the pandemic and the number of daily meetings has gone up by 12.9%. And that’s just the ‘average’! As many of us know, it’s more than that. We’ve heard anecdotal instances of up to 30 hours of Zoom calls a week.
Michael Mazius, a behavioural psychologist explains how Zoom meetings are particularly exhausting. “When you’re working virtually, it pulls you in more. You have to concentrate harder, meaning your brain is working harder. Part of the fatigue people feel comes from having to tune in more deeply than usual.”
So, while a day packed full of meetings in the office may have been tiring, you will likely feel far more drained after a day of Zoom meetings while sitting in front of your screen.
This was something we had never heard of before the pandemic, but it too is a ‘real’ thing. Although you’re feeling tired and have many other things you should be focused on, you just can’t help yourself but scroll for hours consuming more and more bad news. Been there, done that!
Dr. Sonia Lupien, director of the Centre for Studies on Human Stress in Montreal talks about how and why your brain reacts the way it does, including this seemingly self-defeating behaviour. The brain’s most primal job is to be on alert for danger, but when the threat continues on for months as this pandemic has, she says “the brain goes on high alert, becoming a ‘super-detector’ of threats and reacts as though the world is a dangerous place.”
This is why you actually seek out negative information and pay more attention to that than you do to anything positive coming your way. Your brain is looking for threats and producing a stress response to keep you safe and ensure your survival. And she adds that “because the brain is so focused on threatening information, your thinking becomes rigid. While this is helpful when you’re in immediate danger and need to narrow your focus and limit your thoughts, this mindset is not conducive to creativity and innovation.”
Okay, so we understand a bit more about why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. How does this help us feel better?
First things first, be reassured to know that our brains are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do; ensuring our survival. We can’t and wouldn’t want to rewire the machine that keeps us safe, but what we can do is be intentional about how we cope with this stress in healthy ways.
Cut Down on the Number of Threats
Realistically we can’t change what’s beyond our control, but we can make a conscious decision to avoid being pummelled with it all day, every day. We know our brain is looking for the next news story or social media post, so we can intentionally watch/read the news for one hour a day (whatever time of day works best) and give it what it needs. But for the other 23 hours, we should turn off our news feeds and give our minds a well-deserved rest.
Not Every Moment in Time Must be Productive
Instead of feeling guilty because we’re distracted, unfocused, or just not churning things out at the usual pace, we need to give ourselves a break. Rather than finishing yet another item on the to-do list, maybe the item we really need to take care of now is ourselves? Accept that there is nothing wrong with that.
It’s the same principle as when in a plane you need to put on your own oxygen mask before you can help anyone else. You take care of yourself ‘before’ you’re unable to. As long as your self-care is healthy, it is probably the most important thing we can do at any given moment in time. And it’s a choice we get to make.
Avoid Zoom When You Can
Meeting fatigue needs to be taken seriously. Say ‘no’ to meetings that are optional and only attend what’s necessary. Better yet, skip Zoom and have a phone conversation. Remember those? Just as effective. Not as exhausting.
Appreciate What You Have
It’s impossible for your brain to be in a state of gratitude and stress at the same time. So, when you’re feeling like it’s just all too much, stop. Literally, take one deep breath and picture one thing, just one, that you are grateful for at that very moment.
And if you can’t focus on that, then YouTube your favourite song, be still, and listen to it all the way through. Those few minutes you spend thinking about or listening to something you love will give your stressed-out brain a break. And even a few minutes of rest can make a huge difference.
Accept that the World is a Mess ‘Today’
One of the key things we can do to begin to cope is to stop fighting and accept that things are the way they are today. This does not mean we give up trying to be better or impact things positively. What is means is that we drop the struggle of the fight or the heaviness of the denial. This in itself gives us the energy to move ahead.
In his decades-long fight with Parkinson’s Disease Michael J. Fox puts it very eloquently saying “Accepting that this thing has happened, and you accept it for what it is. It doesn’t mean that you can’t endeavor to change. It doesn’t mean you have to accept it as a punishment or penance, but just put it in its proper place. Then see how much the rest of your life you have to thrive in, and then you can move on.”
There are loads of other techniques out there to help manage stress, so try out whatever appeals to you. And hey, there’s a lot going on right now that sucks. Plain and simple. We all will continue to stumble our way through and pray for it to right itself sooner than later.
“Nothing lasts forever- not even your troubles.”
-Arnold H. Glasow