The Pandemic Stress Hack That Just Might Keep You Going
I was on a Zoom call recently (which is how all stories start now, right?) where energy was low, and cameras were off (which is how all Zoom calls are now, right?). The topic of the call was pandemic stress and how folks are managing it. The facilitator switched slides and read aloud the capital letters occupying the screen: “WE WILL NOW TAKE TURNS UNMUTING OURSELVES AND SINGING THE CHORUS OF OUR FAVORITE SONGS.”
Wait. What?! My heart started pounding. I could feel it in my ears.
Slide switched again: “Kidding! That was just to get your stress response system going.”
Phew. With a big exhale, my heart slowed down.
A cute and effective trick. But, really? Stressing us out during a conversation about stress? Shouldn’t we avoid stress at all costs?
No. We can’t, and we shouldn’t.
Here’s The Thing
Stress itself is not the problem. In small, predictable doses, it helps us learn and grow. It’s the sweaty palms, butterfly stomach you get before a big new thing: taking a test, doing a job interview, going on a date, playing in a championship game, (ahem) singing out loud on a Zoom call.
When we face a challenge, the stress response system is activated, peaks, and then deactivates. We return to our baseline, whatever that baseline may be. And suppose we face the same challenge often enough. In that case, we create a new relationship with it– on a neural level– where it no longer seems challenging.
The Pattern of Stress Makes a Big, Big Difference
When stress is unpredictable, ongoing, and intense, there is no opportunity to return to baseline. It just keeps coming, and so we stay in an activated state. This activated state likely involves a mix of responses, some more linked to hyperarousal (the fight/flight stuff: muscle tension, feeling fired up, reactive, irritable) and some more related to dissociation (the freeze stuff: numb, flighty, checked out).
You can probably pinpoint this combo if you consider a crisis you’ve dealt with. There…