When Pandemics Get You Down

A way to comprehend your response to chronic stress

Imagine a roaring tiger suddenly jumps out of a bush beside you. Instinctively, you either fight back or try to run away. But if the tiger continues to stalk you and will not leave you alone, you cannot keep running or resisting forever. Eventually, you curl up as small as you can, trying to survive by hiding.

Most of us will never confront a literal tiger, but other terrors still attack us, and we still respond in similar ways. An immediate threat activates our “fight or flight” system, focusing our attention and pushing us to take action. Ongoing stress, though, can instead wear us down and drive us to the emotional equivalent of a fetal position.

My therapist compares these experiences to a ladder with three rungs, each representing different neurological states. At the top, we operate in more of a flow or feel comfortable. The “flight or flight” stage shifts us down to the second rung as we try to deal with stress. We fall to the bottom of the ladder when the stress overwhelms us and we try to withdraw.

All three have their place in helping us get by, even the last one. Yet the lower we go, the more it costs us over time. You can imagine the ladder extending down into a swimming pool; holding your breath lets you stay at the bottom rung temporarily, but we are not equipped to live there permanently. At some point, you need to come up for air.

Right now, we all live under the surreal shadow cast by invisible flecks of incarnate spells known more clinically as a coronavirus. For many of us, fears that fester in that shadow threaten us more than the virus itself, but both will keep stalking us for some time. No matter how strong or prepared we may be, each of us will inevitably slip down the ladder as the shadow grows.

Two tasks can build resilience, though: recognizing when we start sinking to the bottom of the ladder, and learning what helps us climb back up.

One key dimension for discovering either involves your awareness or engagement with the world around you. For example, you might expect to find the strongest emotions at the bottom of the ladder, but it often manifests more as a numbness and lack of feeling. When I find myself trying to block out struggles and pursue self-destructive escapism, I know my soul is drowning.

Similarly, activities that raise your awareness of what you feel or with facets of your environment can often pull you back to the surface. They may not even involve engaging with your stresses; simply reconnecting with stories and experiences unfolding outside of yourself may stretch your mental muscles enough to at least recover from feeling overwhelmed. This week, I felt more refreshed after noticing more of my neighborhood and feeling the chill of a misty breeze while taking a long walk.

Many others have shared practical tips lately on working from home, practicing self-care, and staying in touch with friends. Amid all these new routines, I encourage you to pay attention to what increases or decreases your capacity for noticing your surroundings and absorbing the emotions of events sweeping past you. Recognize that even if the latter lies beyond your control, you still have resources for reclaiming a place at the top of your mental ladder.

The days ahead may be hard, but they are not hopeless. Keep climbing.

Written by

An analytical romantic. I help people understand how they fit into the world.

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