Ugh. It’s a bit heavy right now isn’t it. Our feelings are all over the place. We felt anxious, maybe even panicky a few weeks ago. Maybe we managed that by being really productive and planning. Maybe we managed it by just panicking. Maybe just by shutting down.
The anxiety might still be there, maybe even fear. Maybe sadness and grief, depending on your situation. Not just grief because we have lost people, also grief because we have lost our plans, our hopes, our certainties.
Maybe the anxiety is giving way to something else. Something more meh. Something flatter, more helpless, maybe even a bit angry.
It’s been a few weeks now and perhaps we, because we are humans, are starting to become a little more immune to the constant crash of bad news. And we are realising that we are in this for a while, and that perhaps some of the things that we’ve been doing aren’t sustainable. And maybe we’re starting to feel a bit lonely now. We’ve lost a lot of our usual coping strategies, we’ve lost perhaps the people and the touch which boosts us up. We’re dealing with new stresses and old ones, and we don’t have much time or head space to process it all.
I’ve been thinking this week about a few ways of explaining this flatness.
1. The Old Baggage
For many people, now is the time that the old baggage comes up again. If you have, at any time, as many people have, felt that your needs were not recognised, and that you were not ‘seen’, it can be so difficult to feel so shut in now. I’ve talked before about how often we seek validation from external sources. The pat on the back, the praise. You might still be getting this in some way if you are managing to work around children. But for many people, that external validation has disappeared and it’s hard to feel recognised. To feel seen. To feel that someone knows you are here, that you exist, that you are of value.
This can be especially difficult for you if you have experienced post natal mental health struggles, such as depression, anxiety or symptoms of trauma. Being in the home with small children can really re-ignite some of the old issues which were perhaps resolved with time rather than changes being made. Issues such as inequality of childcare or household labour, knowing your worth, identity changes that only became clearer when you returned to work and found aspects of your ‘old’ identity returned, dealing with difficult behaviour.
It’s important that we both find ways to feel ‘seen’ and also look at how much we are valuing ourselves. Often the answer to being ‘seen’ in our society is to be productive. The current situation really challenges our capacity both to be productive and also to be recognised for it. So perhaps now is a time to question what our value is in a different way?
2. Feeling Frozen
There are also, of course, wider issues affecting us all individually in different ways. We can see what we are experiencing as a collective trauma, something which affects all of us in different ways. Some directly, and others indirectly. What we know about trauma is that we have to experience a situation or event in which we were worried that ourselves or a loved one were at risk of serious harm. But we may not experience it ourselves. We can be vicariously traumatised too by what we witness, even stories that we hear about. At the moment, we are right in the middle of a traumatic event. That doesn’t mean that everyone will come out of this with PTSD. And there is also research demonstrating that many people come out of trauma feeling that they have grown. But it does mean that many people at the moment are protecting themselves from what they are experiencing or witnessing.
When we experience a traumatic event we tend to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. How we react depends on many factors, including the situation itself but also our personal lives and histories (particularly if you have experienced trauma before) A lot of people were in fight and flight a couple of weeks ago. Now we might be feeling a little more frozen, which we may go to when we are feeling unable to fight or flee. We might feel a bit foggy headed and sapped of energy. We are waiting for the event to pass until we feel safe enough to move again.
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, when we feel this way, one thing that can help is instilling a sense of safety right now, to counteract our freeze response. Use your breath, short mindfulness exercises, grounding or simply repeat in your mind ‘at this moment I am safe’. Think about all the people who are working now to keep us safe- all the helpers.
It’s important to note too that, if you are feeling frozen, this is a clever physiological response and your body is acting to keep you safe. If that means you are finding it hard to concentrate, or are feeling impatient, there’s a good reason for that so try not to add to it with shame or guilt. We can only do what we can.
3. Learned Helplessness
There has been so much in the media about using this time to develop ourselves. And if you are in position and have the mental capacity to learn and develop then great. But many people are in a liminal state , that peculiar place of being ‘no longer/not yet’. We know we are in the midst of a transition, but we don’t yet know to what. And we are at this threshold feeling anxious, sad and possibly angry too. So it wouldn’t be surprising if our brains feel a little bit on pause too. I asked on Instagram how you’re coping at the moment and it’s no surprise that 80% of you are distracting yourself more than usual. And 72% of you are running at full tilt, without time to reflect or rest let alone anything else.
As well as feeling frozen, we might also be grappling with the feeling that we are not in control. This is one of the (many) reasons why people are responding to this time so differently. If you have learned previously that you don’t have control over your life, you are much more likely to feel defeated right now. What’s the point? It’s all just rubbish anyway so why bother have a shower/get dressed/eat a proper meal?
We become helpless and lose our motivation to do anything let alone make a change, let alone find a way to grow.
One of the most cited studies on this topic is Martin Seligman’s studies in the 60s and 70s. He and his colleagues found that, when we feel we have control over a negative outcome (in this case, giving dogs electric shocks, one day we can talk about cruelty in the name of psychological research…) we are more likely to persevere in the face of adversity. When we feel we don’t have control, we give up. We just take it. Again, this is a sensible coping strategy if we feel that fighting is futile. This theory explains one of the many reasons why telling someone with depression ‘you should just try…’ is deeply invalidating.
We’re much more likely to enter a state of defeat when we’ve experienced that in the past. If we felt that asserting our needs to our caregivers would be fruitless, eventually we give up and accept our lack of control. There are wider factors at play too, of course. If we’ve been raised in poverty and/or treated with bias or discrimination, then we are more likely to learn that there is no point in fighting (again, an explanation as to why we have seemingly accepted so much austerity and discrimination over the last ten years).
But all hope is not lost. Learned helplessness is just that- learned. And we can unlearn it. At the moment we might be feeling defeated by so many factors to do with our current situation. The lack of certainty over the outcome, being unable to control huge and significant aspects of daily life. Being stuck in a home situation which leaves you feeling trapped or frightened. But there may be elements within that, that you can control. Even, that give you hope.
Looking just at what you can control right now can help. And thinking ahead to allow yourself a little hope too.
Shall we end on that light and breezy topic of existential crises?
Because we might not just be feeling unmotivated, anxious, unproductive. We might also be questioning many many things that we thought we knew. Many of the certainties we held are being turned upside down and we may not be sure what to replace them with.
Our existence is something humans have questioned probably since humans have existed. The big questions. Why are we here? What is our purpose? Is there a meaning to all of this?
One way of understanding these existential angsts is through existential therapy and theorists and one of the most well known existential therapists is Irvin Yalom. He suggested that we have four existential ‘givens’ that we have to somehow resolve. Death and dying, the potential for isolation, our freedom (to make choices and the responsibility that is associated with that) and the essential meaninglessness of life (I told you it was going to be light and breezy).
When we feel we are in crisis it may be because these essential questions have been thrown up for us. And at the moment we might be thinking about all 4. To reach a resolution, we can think about the choices that we want to make. Will we, for example, be so consumed by our mortality that we will be paralysed? Or will we find a way to make the most of the lives that we have?
Facing these big topics is not easy. It can be deeply painful. But every now and again something comes along which means we have to face them head on. And when we find a way to live with them again, we can regain a sense of purpose and create our own meaning.