Why Post Pandemic Stress is a Real Thing
Are you feeling as if you are just as stressed out now that the pandemic is lifting and things are opening up? Maybe you're feeling conflicted still even though you're vaccinated. "It doesn't make sense" is what we are saying to ourselves--those of us who still feel a sense of dread or like we're breaking some rule if we are going maskless around other vaccinated people.
It totally makes sense. It is the result of our stress response.
Our stress response was on high alert--for months!--last year when the pandemic hit. We collectively became wedded to our phones and to the latest news and updates and recommendations. We were constantly looking for guidance which was not there, and when there was guidance, it often shifted and changed within days, weeks, months. Our trust was shaken in the systems that kept us safe.
All the while this was happening in our thoughts, our bodies were reacting underneath our consciousness, tensing up, with a cascade of neurohormones that primed us for action.
This is the definition of stress. Our bodies are along for the ride--they react when our psychological safety is on shaky ground. Our muscles tense, our nervous system gets geared up for fight, flight, freeze. Which means we are on high-alert, and we get "stress" symptoms--feeling:
-- worn out -- burned out
--having compassion fatigue
-- feeling irritable
--needing more rest
-- needing more recovery
-- having difficulty concentrating
-- having difficulty connecting --wanting to binge watch, binge eat, binge anything...
Any of those stress symptoms ring a bell? If you're anything like most of us, most of us had many of those! Gee, thanks stress response!
So now, for most of the world, the pandemic is lifting. Vaccinations are increasing, and people are hearing that it may be safe to gather, at least with vaccinated folks. Yet instead of throwing open the doors and inviting everyone you know who's vaccinated over for a cookout, you're feeling tentaive. You're finding yourself still avoiding folks. You are questioning the recommendations. You're wondering whether things will feel normal again.
This Is Your Body's Way of Protecting You
What you're feeling is a natural result of having been in chronic stress situation. Our bodies have been on high alert for so long, that our bodies don't "trust" when there is perceived safety. Our bodies have indeed felt so unsafe for so long, that safety is something we will need to relearn again.
This is pretty typical for those of us who have dealt with traumatic situations. For instance, if a combat vet comes home after war, after engaging in hand to hand combat and hearing bombs go off, his body is attuned to a stress response. It will not trust safety, unless it is deconditioned.
Telling Your Body It Is Ok--Deconditioning
Our bodies--and minds!-- are there to protect us, yet sometimes it goes overboard. That is what chronic stress is. Our body gets into a stress response pattern and has seriously hard time getting out of it. We need to teach our bodies that it is ok--all is safe. Some questions to ask yourself:
What am I indeed afraid of?
Is it possible that your fears are more a result of the past year's stress response and not based in current true threat? What is the actual threat to for bodily harm in this situation? Be truthful, here, with your objective, rational mind taking the reins.
What am I feeling in my body?
When we are deconditioning from a stress response, we must first be aware of what physical reactions are going on in your body. What is your body saying to you when it is tensing up when you are talking with a friend about getting together for a playdate? How can you loosen your muscles, relax in the moment, and "tell" your body through a relaxation response that there is indeed no threat? (Curious about this process? I walk folks through engaging and disengaging from their stress response every day in therapy. Reach out, would love to chat.)
What can I safely do now?
In relaxed bodies, we are able to face our safety and security fears to decondition our stress response. We expose ourselves to the perceived risk. We know that eventually we'll want to gather with friends (safely). We learn to be in a relaxed body despite our fears. We tell our body that this is not a situation to raise alarm. With experience and practice, it learns to trust your behavior and reduce its stress response.
This was a landmark year for most of us. It gave us so much to think about when it comes to our values, our boundaries, what we want in our lives, what we don't. Being quarantined was a new experience for most of us, like we have been put in an extended time out. Like that kid that tentatively opened up his door after being placed in time out, we too will be taking tentative steps towards the "new normal." Self-compassion can be part of this equation--to look at your responses over the past year, and your thoughts and worries about all that is to come--with deep kindness and tenderness, knowing that we are all doing the best we can, and when we know better, we do better.
If you are reading this and see that this will take too much effort and you're worried about whether you can combat these fears, you're not alone. This does take time. You may be experiencing post traumatic stress response, a heightened clinical level of stress that needs counseling or therapy to support the healing process. I have free consultations and offer this kind of therapy myself, so reach out today if you or someone you know needs support.
Post-Pandemic Stress is a real thing. Our bodies have gone through stress on a collective level it hadn't seen before. Trusting the authorities and changing our behaviors takes time, and trusting your body that it will too move back into joy, abudnace and freedom is the next step.
*This blog is for teaching and informational purposes only and not meant to replace therapy, counseling or to diagnose. If you need therapy in the US, contact your healthcare provider, insurance company, or search www.psychologytoday.com or your local listings for a therapist. If you are in crisis or know someone who is, call 911.