Since lockdown began, I’ve been talking a lot about stress and the emotional toll this crazy time is taking on us all. I’ve been encouraging you all to give yourself space and grace to navigate this time with compassion. The reality is, this has been emotionally exhausting for all of us and I am no exception.
I have this belief that in order to succeed, you have to be uncomfortable. This came from my traumatic experiences at a child and adolescence. The harder I worked at keeping everything functioning, the less likely it was that I was going to be in danger. Of course, this is not reasonable but it served me well in a number of ways. As a competitive athlete, I know that I had to push myself to the point of emotional and physical discomfort in order to prioritize training and diet over things I enjoyed like eating out with friends, going out for drinks, eating the f*cking cake! I sacrificed and I succeeded. As a single mama, I had to earn an income in a way that allowed me to stay home and care for my son, so I started a daycare and delivered flyers to 4000 homes in the area I lived in at the time to fill my spaces. I am no stranger to the grind. My husband and therapist remind me all the time that I can’t fail because I thrive when my world is on fire.
Well, that was true until lockdown.
In fairness, I had a lot of challenges prior to Covid. My then 12-year-old son coming out and facing homophobia at school, my joining and leading a campaign to bring LGBTQ2S+ awareness to my new town, my opening of a Pflag chapter in our town, and supporting many marginalized folks outside of the groups we created. My son’s struggle with his mental health took the biggest toll for sure. My husband completed his master’s degree while working full time which meant I was 24/7 parent for 18 months. So, my resources were depleted as it was. So, when covid arrived, I was primed for a collapse. And that’s exactly what happened.
Working with my therapist during this time, I learned a lot about the gap between knowing what to do and doing it. My complaints to her were:
Why can’t I open my laptop?
Why can’t I get out of bed?
Why can’t I exercise?
Why can’t I be emotionally available to my family?
Why can’t I feed myself properly?
Her answer: “Because you’re done, Sophie. You’ve expended more emotional energy than you had and you have nothing left.“
I’d argue (because of course, I did) that I am good at being on fire and I should be able to push through this. She’d remind me that we can tell ourselves whatever stories we like but our physiological and psychological response to stress is impossible to argue with. So, I ignored her advice to escape by myself for a few nights and guess what happened? Nothing. I remained paralyzed.
So, after this conversation, I did what I always do when someone tells me something I don’t want to believe. Something I feel I should be immune to. I researched it. Here’s what I learned:
Stress response is really not that complicated. I learned about something called General Adaptive Syndrome and I think you need to hear about it as much I did. An endocrinologist in Montreal, Hans Selye, came up with the theory of General Adaptive Syndrome – a three-stage process that describes the physiological changes the body goes through under stress. He identified them as Alarm, Resistance, and Exhaustion.
1. Alarm reaction stage
The alarm reaction stage refers to the initial symptoms the body experiences when under stress. You already know about the “fight-or-flight” response, which is a physiological response to stress. It’s a natural reaction designed to protect you from danger. Your heart rate increases, your adrenal gland releases cortisol (a stress hormone), and you receive a boost of adrenaline, which increases energy. This fight-or-flight response occurs in the alarm reaction stage. This is also the state that we are in when we’re reactive – our amygdala becomes hijacked and we’re reactive rather than responsive. We can get better at how we function in this state with practice – but more on that in another post.
2. Resistance stage
After the initial shock of a stressful event and having a fight-or-flight response, the body begins to repair itself. It releases a lower amount of cortisol, and your heart rate and blood pressure begin to normalize. Although your body enters this recovery phase, it remains on high alert for a while. If you overcome stress and the situation is no longer an issue, your body continues to repair itself until your hormone levels, heart rate, and blood pressure reach a pre-stress state.
Some stressful situations continue for extended periods of time. If you don’t resolve the stress and your body remains on high alert, it eventually adapts and learns how to live with a higher stress level. I call this parenthood. Seriously. Is there a primary parent alive who hasn’t spend months on limited sleep, managing the crying and feeding demands of a tiny human while on that limited sleep? I mean, as a primary caregiver, you’re constantly on alert for threats to yourself as well as that tiny human – and if you have multiple children in care, even more threats to be aware of.
Here’s what’s really important here: In this stage, the body goes through changes that you’re unaware of in an attempt to cope with stress. Your body continues to secrete the stress hormone and your blood pressure remains elevated. You may think you’re managing stress well, but your body’s physical response tells a different story. If the resistance stage continues for too long of a period without pauses to offset the effects of stress, this can lead to the exhaustion stage. So, when we say that parenting is a superpower, we’re not exaggerating!
Signs of the resistance stage include: irritability – frustration – poor concentration.
This is me for sure and honestly, every primary caregiver I know – and every trauma survivor.
So, we can all agree that right now, in unison we are nodding our heads saying “yep, that’s me”. Well, listen up because this part is critical:
3. Exhaustion stage
This stage is the result of prolonged or chronic stress. Struggling with stress for long periods can drain your physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point where your body no longer has the strength to fight stress. You may give up or feel your situation is hopeless. Signs of exhaustion include: fatigue – burnout – depression – anxiety – decreased stress tolerance.
Wow, right? So, this is where I am – how about you?
As I’ve spoken about many many times, I have been diagnosed with complex PTSD and MDD (major depressive disorder). These are symptoms of what I just described. Many of these symptoms didn’t impact me until this past year because at 43 my body is tired. It has just had enough. So, I feel you.
Before you dismiss this and say “meh, my situation isn’t that bad, I don’t think I’ve had this kind of stress in order to have such an intense stress response” let me share with you what a stressful event can look like for general adaptation syndrome to occur:
- a job loss
- medical problems
- financial troubles
- family breakdown
The fight-or-flight response that occurs in the alarm stage is for your protection, obviously. We need it. A higher hormone level during this stage benefits you by giving you more energy and improves your concentration so you can focus on and tackle the situation. When stress is short-term or short-lived, the alarm stage isn’t harmful.
That said, prolonged stress is a different story. The longer you deal with stress, the more harmful it is to your health and the real issue comes when we stay in the resistance stage for too long. That’s when we enter the exhaustion stage. Once you’re in the exhaustion stage, prolonged stress raises the risk for chronic high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, and depression. You also have a higher risk of infections and cancer due to a weaker immune system. As it turns out, this is where my therapist told me I would end up if I didn’t take the time for me. Are you here, too?
Here’s the thing:
Since it’s not possible to eliminate every stressor, it’s important to find ways to cope with stress. Knowing the signs and stages of stress can help you take appropriate steps to manage your stress level and lower your risk of complications. It’s essential for your body to repair and recover during the resistance stage. If not, your risk for exhaustion rises and you’ll wind up emotionally paralyzed and I can tell you that is not a fun place to be.
So, here are some things that my therapist told me to, which I ignored until I came upon the very same information while learning more about stress. Will I ever learn?!
Take breaks. If you are able to work and if you are the primary household manager of all things – set your timer every hour for a short break. It doesn’t really matter what you do with that break as long as you’re making the effort to still your brain. I take 5 deep breaths – belly breaths – not in your chest. I often tell clients to do this while even on the toilet. Sometimes, as primary caregivers, this is our only break and if you’re anything like me, you’ll wait until you are seconds from peeing your pants before you do take that time. Don’t bring your phone to the toilet – just sit and breathe. If you’re working in an office, just take a walk in the stairwell for a moment. Even 30 seconds. The key is making your brain stop functioning with 30 tabs open even for a moment, many times a day. Trust me on this – or don’t, and research it yourself and then trust it. Like I do.
Go to bed earlier. If you normally scroll mindlessly or watch reality TV until 11 pm, decide to go to bed at 10 pm instead. The internet will still be there in the morning. It will take time for your body to learn to wind down an hour earlier but it will happen if you’re consistent. I know as parents, often, the only time we have for ourselves is after kids go to bed but maybe your kids need to go to their rooms earlier, too? My 4-year-old is in bed by 7 pm at the latest and my almost 14 years old has to be in his room by 930pm and lights out at 10 pm. I know sometimes he’s still up at 11 pm but that’s a him problem, not a me problem.
Put your phone away. This one is hard for me but seriously, do it. Pick up a book or put on a podcast instead. This one, for example. Anxiety in teens and young adults is skyrocketing over the past 10 years – is there any wonder with their faces in phones all day? We have to be better.
So, I am practising what I preach. My downtime lately has been sitting outside in my back yard at the fire table with a book. Sometimes it’s with my husband instead and we just watch the wildlife in the pond behind our house and chat. I’m also trying to leave my phone alone as much as possible. Again, it’s a challenge because I have so many hats on but what I do know about myself is that the more active I am on my personal social media, the more I’m scrolling through timelines and the less connected I am with myself and my emotions.
Our personal mental health indirectly impacts our collective mental health. Imagine if we all worked a little harder on our mental health? Let’s do this.