So we’re weeks into the coronavirus pandemic – I’ve lost count how many. And there’s no counting the weeks until it’s over, because we still don’t know.
We are stuck in an in-between place – the “new normal.”
How are you doing?
If you’re anything like me, the answer might depend on the day, the moment, or the people around you.
Maybe you’re good, and then suddenly lose your cool with someone, or just want to be left alone. Or maybe someone else in your home is directing their frustration at you or checking out.
Why does the annoyance get so magnified, and what can we do when buttons are pushed?
The “new normal” is stressful
This “new normal” is not so normal. In fact, is entirely uncomfortable to the brain which is always trying to predict the future and guide our behavior.
What happens when we can’t predict?
Neuroscience research shows that the amygdala, a part of the brain most associated with our fight/flight threat response, gets activated when we can’t predict an outcome. In fact, we can be less stressed if we know that something painful is coming than to not know whether it will come at all!
When we can predict, then we can prepare and respond accordingly.
So much in this “new normal” is both unpredictable and out of our control. We didn’t choose to be here, and we don’t know how or when it will end.
On top of that, most of us been thrown into the deep end to figure out new online systems for learning and working, all while sharing our space 24/7.
Self-control goes out the window
The uncertainty and all the new demands are like a threat to the nervous system. And when we feel under threat, sometimes we lose control.
Stress wants us to act!
Cortisol and adrenaline get the body ready to take action against the threat. The heart races, our breathing gets faster, muscles tense, we may sweat. And the limbic brain, home of the amygdala and the fight-flight response, gets activated.
At the same time, the neural connections to the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-level thinking and self-regulation, are de-activated.
So if the alarm bells have rung and started the stress response – whether that’s fight, flight or freeze – you can usually forget about trying to change your thinking or actions by force of will.
The emotional roller-coaster
When we do or say something out of stress, the stress might temporarily subside because we took action. We might calm down, and then be able to think differently once we can connect to that pre-frontal cortex again.
But because whatever action we took didn’t really resolve the underlying stress, which is likely this new normal where we don’t have control and can’t predict, it will likely come back again.
Basically, we’re on an emotional roller coaster.
A hilarious example of the emotional roller coaster is in this video a friend shared with me, My Quarantine Mood Swings. I highly recommend if you need some laughs (especially for parents)!
Tips for riding the emotional rollercoaster (aka not losing it…as much)
First of all, give yourself a break. Beating yourself up doesn’t help anyone and won’t change the past. But it will feel like an internal attack to the nervous system, which just means more stress. So be done with self-scolding. Self-compassion is the best cure.
Second, as soon as you realize you’ve lost it (even if it’s 10 minutes later), pause for awareness. Instead of trying to will yourself out of it, or shoving it in the junk closet of unwanted feelings, actually bring awareness to the feelings. While it might seem antithetical, research shows that awareness and acceptance of the feelings creates significantly more tolerance for them than distraction does. (This means no judging them!)
Next – and this can happen simultaneously with the awareness – apply what I call bottom-up regulation. When we can’t access the part of the brain needed to control our thinking or behavior in the stress response (the pre-frontal cortex), we can back our way in by using the body or breath to calm the nervous system.
And then we can begin to shift the thoughts and behavior more quickly.
Because the brain is constantly receiving and interpreting signals from the body, when you relax the body or deepen the breath, the brain recognizes the signals related to the parasympathetic nervous system which calms the stress response. Essentially, it recognizes from the bottom-up signals of relaxation that we are not in imminent danger.
If we’re breathing deeply, we are not about to run from a bear in the woods or hide from a predator.
Neuroscience studies confirm that brain activity corresponds with the breath in the same two areas associated with regulating emotions (the limbic brain and the cortex). When we consciously slow down the breath, neurons send signals to the rest of the brain to or chill out.
So forget about trying to shift your mindset in the moment, or beating yourself up for not doing so later. Instead, focus on being aware of what you’re feeling, emotionally and physically, and try to slow down, relax and breath.
Finally, carve out some regular time to yourself. Let your people know you’re unavailable, so you can exert some control over the situation (which the brain is craving!), chill out, and reset your nervous system.
Tools for riding the emotional roller coaster
Just bringing awareness to the body can often initiate a release of tension. Feeling the feet on the floor, or grounding from the pelvis down to the feet, can signal a calm grounding that does not exist in fight/flight/freeze.
Simply taking a few slow, deep breaths can make a difference.
If you’re able to find the time, a yoga practice, breathing practice or body scan are wonderful tools for bottom-up regulation and will support you in staying calm during the rollercoaster plunge.
I offer each of these 3 practices for free in my Corona Care Package. So if you’re not on my regular blog list, sign up below and I’ll email you links to the guided practices.