By Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC
Posted on September 6, 2020
Welcome to Q&A Today, a column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.
Q: I consider myself highly competent. I’m high achieving, generally unemotional and tough. And yet lately I’m finding myself feeling insecure, uncertain about my decisions and not particularly interested in participating in activities or going anywhere.
I’m blaming my lethargy on this pandemic. However, my husband points out that I’ve dealt with other major challenges in my life, like having to unexpectedly evacuate our home for several weeks when last years’ bushfires got too close. He wants to know why, when I’ve been so resilient in the past, have I lost my confidence now? Any suggestions on how I can get rid of this stress and recharge my batteries? – Ruby
A: Believe me, you’re not alone in how you’re feeling. I can’t help you get rid of all of your stress, because stress is an unavoidable part of life. Yet it may bring you some comfort to know that experiencing stress in small doses is not a bad thing.
Think of it this way. Stress ranges on a continuum from feelings of being mildly upset to being overwhelmed. At the low end of the stress continuum exists those nagging, uncomfortable feelings of unease that often helps motivate us to address tasks we’ve been avoiding. You know what I’m talking about… like preparing for an upcoming presentation at work or cleaning the garage. When we’re confident we can manage the issues that are creating this stress our equilibrium won’t be negatively impacted. We’ll tackle the matters at hand and return to our normal daily activities.
However, when we encounter stress that won’t go away, we’re in big trouble. As human beings we’re not engineered to function well with prolonged stress. And that’s exactly what we’re dealing with today. We’re living with unprecedented and unrelenting stress caused by a pandemic that has no expiration date. This dramatic impact on our lives can push us to the high end of the stress continuum, with extremely disruptive physical and psychological results.
I’ll explain why this is so.
When we sense danger or vulnerability, our bodies are hard wired to respond immediately. It’s as if an emergency alarm system is loudly broadcast to our various body parts, warning them to start preparing for a perceived threat.
This is also known as the fight-or-flight response. Without our knowledge, stress hormones are released, causing a series of reactions to occur in our body so that we’ll be better prepared to respond to and survive the perceived dangerous situation. For example, our attention becomes more narrowly focused, discarding other less important matters. Our heart rate increases so that more blood can be provided to our limbs, should we need to react with fight or flight. The increased blood flow provides us with much more energy, allowing us to be fully engaged to cope with the situation. That wonderful teamwork within our body gets us past stress-impacted crises, such as may have occurred when the threatening bushfires forced the sudden evacuation from your home. But if the stress does not subside, it can morph into prolonged stress. Our blood pressure will remain elevated. We’ll be overly alert, which in turn can create difficulty sleeping and emotional exhaustion. Our immune system will be stressed and put us at great risk of getting sick.
Chronically stressful situations can also threaten our mental wellbeing. Emotionally, we may feel insecure, such as you described, and more vulnerable. Feelings may include fear, sadness, and even helplessness. Formerly enjoyable experiences such as travelling, eating at restaurants, or visiting friends and relatives become challenges. All very similar to what you are experiencing. Something as simple as pumping gas or as natural as sending our children back to school poses a perceived threat to our safety.
You were personally impacted by last year’s bush fires and handled that horrific situation well. So you’ve already demonstrated the ability to successfully push past adverse situations. It is also possible that the consequences of that traumatic event used up more of your reserves than initially recognised, thereby leaving you to experience more difficulty in meeting today’s challenges than you would normally expect.
As time continues we’re finding that there are more unknowns and concerns related to COVID-19 than initially believed. Perhaps this uncertainty and feeling of not being in greater control of your life is keeping you in a state of constant physical and psychological concern. But you can’t remain there, as it is making you feel insecure and unmotivated. You must find ways to buffer this ongoing stress. Any challenge we’re facing tends to get better over time if we take care of ourselves. Ahhhh…so how do we accomplish that feat? There are numerous ways that we can help our minds and bodies get back to the point at which they existed before those chronic feelings of anxiety crept in and took over. For starters, I will list a few tried and true methods, and I encourage you to add your own.
1. Minimise your media exposure. Watch enough news so that you know what is going on, however avoid the inclination to watch repetitive news reporting that will only enhance your sense of being in danger and thus out of control. Instead of picking up the TV remote, pick up the phone and talk to a friend or engage in an activity that brings you joy or a sense of purpose.
2. Try mindfulness related activities that will help centre you. Learning how to not worry so much about tomorrow or have regrets for what you did yesterday will help recharge your batteries. This can be achieved through breathing exercises, yoga or meditation. You’ll likely find your blood pressure drop and an overall relaxed feeling increase. Whenever a pessimistic or self–defeating thought comes into your head, make it a habit to counter that thought and think about something that makes you happy. Positive thoughts can have a lot of sway in turning around negative thinking.
3. Acknowledge and respect your feelings. Don’t compare your way of dealing with stress with that of others. We all respond differently and must respect the fact that in part, our response to long term crises is based on our past experiences, emotional makeup and coping style.
4. Be physically active. There are so many wins to be had in those three words. By exercising you are helping yourself to physically relax and release pent up tension inside your body. It’s a natural mood booster and can enhance your opportunity to connect with others. Additionally, it takes your mind off of your worries, sometimes reducing your stress in a long lasting manner.
5. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Help reduce your stress hormones and trigger the release of your naturally created, feel-good happiness chemicals; endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. Endorphins help reduce your perception of pain and stress. Dopamine helps cut through your self-doubt and apathy. And serotonin helps combat loneliness and depression.
Don’t wait for them to release naturally. Give them a boost by laughing. Yes, laugh. Find an opportunity to laugh at either a television sitcom or your pet or child’s antics. Laugh with your friends and bring on the good feelings!
You’re living in tough times, Ruby, but remember that you do have not only the power, but the ability to feel less overwhelmed. Deciding today that COVID-19 is not going to derail you can make all your tomorrows better.
Wishing you well,
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