Are you wondering why you are experiencing a high level of anxiety? Why you feel on edge a lot of the time? Is it harder to concentrate on work? Are you having trouble getting out of bed? Are you irritable with your significant other or your children?
I’d like to validate you. It makes sense that you are feeling these ways.
Under normal circumstances we spend a lot of our day in a regulated state that allows us to stay in the pre-frontal cortex of our brain. We can speak nicely to our kids and spouses, make thoughtful and rational decisions, stay connected to our bodies, experience compassion for ourselves and others, and feel pretty poised. Being in this part of the brain helps us to feel like “ourselves.” We may feel creative, productive, present, alive, content, rested.
However, there are some circumstances that trigger an alarm in our brain. That’s when the threat part of the brain takes over. This part of the brain becomes activated in cases of:
- physical threat,
- emotional threat,
- the unknown, and
- incongruency (mixed messages).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been experiencing all 4 of the above situations. We are under threat from a virus that is physically dangerous. We may we working in unsafe environments. We may be looking after ill family. We are at risk of losing our jobs. We may be stuck in a small space with a significant other, or conversely, may be very isolated with not enough human contact. We don’t know what is going to happen or when it will end. We may be receiving messages from our government or our bosses or teachers that change as new information becomes available. No wonder our brains are acting as if we are under threat!
The good news is that under threat the brain gives us superpowers. These are the same powers that historically were needed to survive a war or battle. The same skills we needed to shoot a gun, dodge rocks falling down on our heads, and escape grenades. Superpowers such as fast reaction times and hypervigilence, tension in our muscles, readiness, being on edge at any moment.
Some of us have less of these fight/flee reactions and more freeze ones. We stay put, we numb out, we go to sleep.
Great, thank you brains for prepping us for danger!
Well, why is the brain giving us these superpowers right now, you may be asking, when we are just at home trying to rest or homeschool our kids or work. I’m safe at home, why do I need these threat responses?
Well, the brain likes to be ready. It casts a large net over anything that remotely resembles a threat and will treat it as such until it can be can be proven otherwise. If we see a “snake” we go into threat response until we can get a closer look and confirm it’s not a snake and just a garden hose.
So yes, you are normal!
It makes sense why even though you are laid off and at home with “lots of free time” that, no, you are not able to do your best creative work.
It makes sense why you are not feeling rested and able to enjoy each day to the fullest.
It makes sense why are are feeling tense.
Your brain is smart. It knows you are not on vacation. It knows you’re at home under threat.
Please go easy on yourselves.
The more you can get understanding and compassion for why you are responding the way you are, the more your brain will understand that you are currently ok-ish. The superpowers will ease up. We don’t want them to go away completely but we do need them to ease up enough so that we can sleep. And work. And play. And find hobbies that fulfill us. And find ways to get human support in a safe, socially distant way.
Many counsellors are trained in trauma and understand the brain’s responses to threat. People with previous trauma histories may have harder times moving out of threat mode. I hope you are able to access help to find ways to feel normal enough in this abnormal time. Feel free to contact me to book an appointment if you are struggling during this time.
Natalie Hansen, Registered Clinical Counsellor