For the past three weeks, I have been working overtime. On March 12, the restrictions on physical proximity that we now all so know and collectively reinforce were not yet in popular discourse and I remember suspecting my travel clinics to Nunavut would need to be cancelled. The next day, they were. And since then, I have been providing video and telehealth counselling sessions around the clock.
Many people in many industries are struggling with not working right now for the sake of public health. The struggle is to do with our regular routine, how we view our place in the world, our purpose, how that purpose is expressed and discovering a new paradigm for business (and emotional wellness) as usual.
Many people like me are serving in health care, and we are exhausted. I have found myself turning to old defence mechanisms from my distant past I thought I put behind me. For instance, when life was tough and I lived in extended periods of uncertainty as a child and youth, I threw myself into schoolwork, studied rigorously, obsessively, to achieve the highest mark possible.
This form of obsessive-compulsive studying was about externally trying to manage the fear I had of being still and quiet back then. Because if I was still and quiet back then, I would see what as happening was not ideal and for a child, the fear of experiencing strong emotions without support is a fear that is intolerable and crushing.
Now, in very different circumstances, as an adult woman, I find the anxious compulsion extended to overworking, overreaching, applying to contracts I don’t need and analyzing the eligibility requirements of stimulus packages I will be fine without in anxious reflex in order to prepare for the unknown. I am not afraid to feel intense emotions anymore, but I fear I must be available to those who can’t during this public crisis.
So, what do we do when we are noticing ourselves go to old ways to handle such comprehensive anxiety?
For some people right now, the urge may be to numb out with drugs or alcohol, or to use old faulty and unhealthy relationships for sex (a particularly bad idea considering the public health risks that close physical contact entails during a pandemic).
It could be to deflect our inner conflict with how we will support our families if our business goes bankrupt in the form of controlling and criticizing our children and youth by lashing out at them. Easy targets for lashing out include the youth’s difficulties with not immediately respecting the physical distancing restrictions due to their socio-emotional stage dictating that they value their peer groups more than their parents (or public health warnings).
Whatever we are facing and however we are facing it, it is important that we don’t ask too much of ourselves right now, and trust in the shock absorbers of our amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for our “fight, flight or freeze” response. Try and cut down on your maladaptive defence mechanism of choice, but allow your amygdala the freedom to take control so it takes less effort.
This part of our brain that doesn’t make the best decisions for us in everyday banal challenging situations is getting excited. Usually, this is a useless and annoying experience. But this isn’t an everyday challenge. We are in gravely concerning times, but we cannot solve or attempt to reduce the strain on our systems unless we actively choose and actively follow through in doing nothing.
The prefrontal cortex (the thinking, rational and planning part of our brain) recognizes this solution to our shared problem is actually a double-bind. We solve the public healthy problem of contagion by doing nothing, withdrawing from others physically and puttering around the house: counter-intuitive, no?
This double-bind triggers our limbic system into action: pulsating fear, shame, rage, sorrow, panic, etc. are experienced. Hold on though, our amygdala has got us covered.
Bear with me: once our prefrontal cortex understands that we really can’t win by doing anything, that we truly have no choice but to follow public health best practice, stay home, lose our jobs, or stocks, or whatever and releases stress hormones, we experience a bit of the emotional intensity, then cue amygdala.
Let’s throw a little amygdala party here.
Our amygdala deserves a party right now because it prevents us from feeling the full effects of what we are experiencing until it’s safe to do so. That is, the amygdala helps us prioritize our physical safety over all else and if we remain aware of what we are doing, and when we do it, the amygdala feels sated and shuts off … for a bit.
It’s in these moments of rest we are likely to feel the feelings, express the fatigue, duress, frustration and confusion that is normal for this abnormal situation. Then, the amygdala kicks back in. It allows us to laugh at poor circumstance; it gets us to participate in a dorky group workout that we would never ordinarily join because, well, hey, we don’t really have a choice right now, do we? And the amygdala knows how to block stuff out of our conscious minds until we are actually able to fix the stuff, you know, when we have choices again!
Many people ask me how people around the world were able to survive genocides, watch their entire families be murdered, or recover from severe childhood neglect and abuse.
I’ve had the privilege of counselling some who have indeed survived these experiences. It is the amygdala that does all of the work. It kicks in when necessary, and most of the work of PTSD recovery is about reteaching the amygdala to relax again.
Normal side effects of our amygdala’s kicking into gear include but are not limited to:
- Sleeping more
- Eating more
- Bouts of crying for “no reason”
- Absence or numbness of emotion
- Not being able to cry when you cry often during emotional times
- Random and misdirected anger
- A vague and ever-present dread
- Hyper-vigilence (again, very useful right now)
- Mania (or intense euphoria for “no reason”)
So, I’m happy to report, now is not yet the time to relax the amygdala constantly. In small doses, I would recommend it. Do that group Zoom meditation, have that giant bowl of pasta, play in the backyard with your pet and take your family and friends on a six-foot spaced walk around the lake reminiscing about your favourite holiday.
Then, focus. Stay up-to-date and informed while giving yourselves these breaks. Let your amygdala work. Let it recognize the danger and the stress in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s voice during his daily updates and let it remind you it is not safe to behave as usual yet (remember that word: yet). It knows what to do, and it will keep us safe.
I promise to cut down on overworking these next few weeks if you promise to do the above.
Laugh, keep helping one another, keep showing love and appreciation.
Don’t fear pain; it’s OK and expected for you to block it out right now. You’ll get through it later, when the time is right and it is safe to forget. And don’t worry, emotions don’t kill us.
No one has ever died from deep grief in losing $100,000+. But, they have died from Covid-19.