I’m not a crier. We all know someone who identifies as a “crier,” and find themselves tearing up over dog commercials and occasionally sobbing, well, just because. This isn’t me. In fact, it’s something I’m actively working on as a means of being more “in touch with my energy.” [Woowoo or not folks, I’m convinced it’s working]. That being said, I cried approximately 3 times on the FIRST day of suggested social distancing. Yup, that’s right, Monday March 16th I did just about nothing but contemplate how in the world I’d turn my entire business around, maintain being there both physically and emotionally for my clients, figure out my company billing and insurance enough to financially support our bills, sell and buy a new home, and well, survive. Although I mention these details of my life that for a split second [or three] felt like the worst things ever, I want to assure you that I am completely aware of the plentiful privilege I have, especially during this pandemic, and am more and more grateful every day.
The purpose of me sharing these tid bits, including my new emotional baseline, is to remind you that it’s okay not to be okay. It’s normal. It’s acceptable. In fact, it’s anticipated and necessary for survival. Our new normal is living just within a few walls, or gearing up for war [I mean, work], seeing our closest loved ones with window or computer screen barriers, constant battles on TV, and wearing masks and gloves every two weeks when we leave our home to get food. Even worse, people are at risk, sick, and dying. Kids have no school or social outlet, parents are pulling their hair out being asking to perform super human tasks, while jobs are lost, and those that are less fortunate in any way, are even more “less fortunate.” THIS. IS. INSANE. And scary. And heartbreaking. And stressful. Even before times of social distancing I knew that my brain loved to organize, compartmentalize, and be planful when things felt unknown. I can now fully confirm that my brain does this, oh and, it isn’t actually effective. Go figure.
One of my first reactions to living in a pandemic, working from home, and living in my pajamas was “Oh! I know, I’ll read more!” and I picked up one of the 22 books I hadn’t gotten to, laying on my bookshelf. After crying a few times, I apparently thought the most appropriate choice would be Burnout by Emily Nagoski, PhD & Amelia Nagoski, DMA [although now, would have made the argument to start with JVN’s Over The Top]. Although a book of amazing truths, my brain was hoping to find some sense of peace in this, in finding “an answer” in how to not feel so crispy. Well, it did and it didn’t.
Let’s dive into a science lesson of sorts, shall we? Something I’ve known, and teach frequently, is that STRESS is a necessary evil of our survival. Even in a simple way, most of us can understand the basic Fight or Flight response – see that lion over there? You’re either going to put up the best fight of your life, or run. Really. Fast. But there’s more. And this is what I can credit to Burnout.
Tons of things in our lives can be placed on a giant spectrum of “stressors” – ANY potential threat to our humanhood, big or small, intense or not so bad. No matter the threat, our body’s only response is to survive. We have these amazing neurological and hormonal changes that create physiological shifts made to either FIGHT or FLIGHT from the “lion,” or the stressor, the threat. Epinephrine causes blood to rush to our muscles, readying for movement and strength. Glucocorticoids pump through our body to allow us to carry on through fear, and endorphins help us out by numbing as much of the physical discomfort as possible. As we throw up fists, or take a lunge stance for a sprint, our hearts know to beat faster, sending blood and oxygen to essential organs [like the muscles we are about to burn out], and our lungs breathe faster to adapt for more oxygen. Growth and tissue repair, digestion, and reproduction are all among the bodily systems that halt, just so that immune function can be focused on. We fight, or we run.
The ability for our bodies to instantaneously tense our muscles, reduce pain sensitivity, create heightened senses, alertness and attentiveness in response to threat has essentially saved us. But now, lions tend to look like grocery stores, hospitals, emails piling up, bank accounts dwindling, and Zoom meetings. Everything we are living through right now, is unknown. Which means everything we are living through right now, feels threatening. And this is how our bodies are meant to respond, whether we like it or not.
It’s okay not to be okay. Ever felt the above description? It feels like sh*t. And if you have somehow made it through life without enduring the pain and panic of that moment, well, kudos. What Burnout helped me realize was not only that I was simply living in a surviving human body, but also that my brain’s desire to plan away the unknown was expected, but not effective. We tend to think, “If I just outrun the lion, create a hideaway plan, or shoot it, make it disappear, I’ll feel better.” Thing is, even when the stressors disappear, we’re left with the remaining stress. That physical response simply needs to finish its course. Please believe me when I say, Emily and Amelia put this much more eloquently than I, but it’s worth breaking down.
So, you know that thing we hear about all of the time? That thing I preach and encourage and sometimes even get pushy about? SELF-CARE. Self-care is the way we choose to deal with the stressor AND the stress. If you’re only dealing with one or the other, like organizing your life away, you’re probably missing a big ole chunk of what you need. This really got me thinking. How often had I given myself a pat on the back for “taking care of that thing,” when really, I still felt awful and could do nothing but feel as though, I must have done it wrong. My coping skills have always been a bunch of new ways to kill or outrun the lion, and so often I’d felt wrong, guilty even, for still feeling panicked, or sad, or worried even when the deed was done. I’m good at dealing with stressors, but the stress itself? It’s a whole other beast.
We all have strengths and weaknesses. As an anxious being, I’ve spent a lot of my life learning to deal with stressors. Any potential threat in my way? I WILL find a way around it. Through it. Alongside it. Whatever it takes. Now, especially in a time of consistent stress, I’m learning to shift my focus to tolerating what comes after. The below are some examples, either my own or others’, for coping with both stressors, and the stress:
Conquering the Lion (Dealing with Stressors)
Plan – Thinking things through, planning ahead, and strategizing with attention to detail feels helpful for some [oh, hi]. Something feel unknown? Make it familiar. Tah dah!
Set Boundaries – This one is good for ALL of us, and can work in a preventative manner. Anticipate “threat” at work? Social media? Within your friend group or family? Determine your boundaries. How far away to stay [cough, more than six feet is welcome as needed], what conversations are and are not welcome, whom you wish to follow/unfollow, and what you want to associate yourself with.
Pay Attention to Your Basic Needs – Another great way to prevent chaos and exhaustion when the Lion comes? Work on meeting your most basic human needs: nourishment, rest, safety, shelter [again, privilege call – not even this is easy or possible for all humans]. If you struggle, or are unable to, meet these needs every day, please give yourself some extra compassion when exhausted. It’s no wonder fighting the beast feels impossible sometimes!
Dealing with the Aftermath (The Stress)
Although this remains something I’m working on, I was glad to be given examples in Burnout, and to see that, hey, I do some of this!
Move – Yep you heard me. Sometimes you just need to keep running from the lion and let the steam die out. Ever realize feeling so much better after yoga? Or Zumba? Or a HIIT workout? Even a stroll? Since our stress response is so similar to physiological responses of movement, this can help Again, another privilege call. It’s easy as an able being to forget to recognize the ease of this, and that some do not have the same access or availability.
Breathe – Remember how are bodies are meant to impact rate of breath to adapt more oxygen? Turns out, if we just keep breathing, focusing on intentionally slowing it down, we can remind the body of its safety and ability to slow down with us.
Cry – Did you know we release cortisol, the “stress hormone” in our tears? No wonder it actually feels so relieving! Remember to hydrate to avoid an emotion hangover.
Social interaction – In the world of a pandemic, social interaction has gotten creative. Have you tried virtual game night with other couples? Maybe whine with wine for lady’s night? Or host classrooms full of students on Zoom! STAY creative. Social interactions can still happen while distanced.
Laughter – The World’s best, free medicine, and something still very available. It doesn’t matter if you have a list of Netflix faves on call, the most hilarious podcasts, hours of TikTok videos to cackle at, or a bestie who is always willing to Facetime. With others, or alone, find ways to keep laughing.
So know that you are not alone. Whether you were laid off, or postponed your wedding. Or work on the front lines everyday while also providing virtual yoga classes for the healing of others. Or work completely at home with your partner. Or are learning a new job by yourself without coworkers. Or had your most important graduate school rotations screwed up. Or are buying and selling your next home. In this craziness, if you live in a human body, it’s okay not to be okay.
[As for the aliens? Well, goodluck.]