How we respond to stress can teach us everything we need to know about ourselves.
How we respond to stress, especially the life or death kind, (like coronavirus) can teach us everything we need to know about ourselves. When a crisis hits, when death seems imminent, we react in old, outdated survival strategies. These ancient coping strategies don’t come from the grown-up parts of our brains. Even if we are competent, mature, psychologically sane adults today, we can react to fear with old, illogical coping strategies. These weird sometimes self-destructive responses can teach us a lot about ourselves.
None of us respond to real hardcore fear, the life and death kind, with our prefrontal cortex’s, the part of our brain that is the grown-up developed area, our logical brain. Instead, when we are scared, we slide back to old stuff, to our brain stem response, to a primitive primal response, the fight or flight or freeze response.
When the coronavirus hit, I heard about it first in reports from China. It wasn’t COVID-19 then. It was something that people on the news were suffering from. We all saw it; lots of people in surgical masks running around looking scared. But we had seen this before, SARS, MERS, and other scary bird flu-like illness that seemed to run through the population, but always in Asia and other places. Not here.
Five days later and the stores are out of toilet paper, schools are closed, bars are shut down, concerts canceled and the world is shut down, on quarantine. And this time the quarantine is on television but it’s here. It’s everywhere. All-day long on the news, on television, on my computer. It even comes to my phone unbidden in scary ‘Alerts.’ The alerts say: The President has it. The President doesn’t have it. The Canadian prime minister’s wife has it. Tom and Rita Hanks have it.
On social media, I watch TikTok videos of Italian singers crooning from their balconies in dark, empty streets in Milan, and the news continues. Reports of normal healthy people in the hospital, the Intensive Care is full, they are running out of respirators.
Just four days ago I went to yoga. At the time it seemed like a mature way to deal with stress. I was managing my anxiety well at the time.
The class was packed. I mean, wall to wall, move your matt over an inch please so I can squeeze in here, packed. We passed props to each other, tried to be polite, touched each other’s blankets and blocks, touched each other, breathed each other’s air. We Om'd and chanted and filled the room with our nervous exhales.
Someone in the class sneezed and then coughed. There was a moment of silence. Everyone froze in their downward dogs. The instructor quickly warned people not to panic, “It’s allergy season, people. Take a deep breath, exhale.”
But no one did. No one exhaled. They held their breath, considering. Was it true? Was it allergies?
The poor woman who had sneezed looked around, terrified.
The class slowly shifted. A silent mob, turning as one. We all stared at her, our heads hanging upside down between outstretched hands.
She fled the class before she was Lord-of-the-Flies-pig-stabbed.
Now, just a few days later, the yoga studio is shut down till further notice. The props need to be bleached and disinfected. Memberships are suspended.
A friend told me about another yoga studio where she goes, still open, but classes are limited. No more than ten people allowed in a class, space in between mats. But no exhaling.
That’s what I was doing, going to yoga, taking care of myself. I was trying to exhale. My brain was trying to take in information, clearly, this is a crisis, and ok, process it all logically, like an adult, with my prefrontal cortex, the front of my brain. My brain said, okay, we are in trouble. Obviously. There’s no food on the shelves at the grocery stores. All work events are canceled. People are quarantined. Do what you know will relax your brain, I thought.
I called my husband. I am in Los Angeles, he is in Connecticut. “I’m worried,” I said. “I think I’m starting to get worried. Like really worried.”
“Come home,” my husband said. “Get on a plane. Come.”
I looked online. Flights canceled all across the country. TSA workers testing positive.
A flight to Denver had to be grounded when a guy sitting next to a young woman with a cold started freaking out and demanded to be moved. The plane had to make an emergency landing and let the guy off with a security escort.
I did the next thing I knew to do when things get scary. I went for a walk. I am lucky, I can walk on the beach. I walked. It rained. It never rains in Southern California. It’s been raining all week. Good for California. They need the rain. I don’t. I moved here to be bi-coastal, for the damn sunshine.
So I did the next thing I do to survive under dire circumstances. I meditated. I downloaded Insight Timer guided meditations and for hours I breathed in and out and relaxed my nervous system, listening to calming voices, imagining floating on clouds.
But I couldn’t sleep. I was falling apart. I stared at the ceiling, my hands shook, my heart pounded. I imagined all the horrible things that were going to happen. I thought of my children.
I got up and ate chocolate. Lots of it. Boxes of it.
The sugar rushed to the parts of my brain that had been deprived of sugar and carbs for weeks and weeks and it said, “YES, finally, you remembered. This is what you need. This is how you do it. You’re in survival mode, girl.”
I felt better for like five minutes.
Then my brain said “Now give me more. MORE. NOW.”
Clearly, this was not the grown-up part of my brain talking. It was cranky and demanding.
This self-destructive coping strategy lasted two days. Like a toddler, my thoughts took, over, demanding, whining, unreasonable, out of control, obsessive. My compulsions didn’t make sense. I was full, I felt sick, I didn’t want to get off the couch and get more damn chocolate.
“Get it yourself” I wanted to say, but I was the one demanding, it was my own damn brain bullying me into eating more chocolate.
That binge lasted about 36 hours. Afterward, I felt bad about myself. Really bad.
I realize now what happened. I was in survival mode. I was not thinking clearly. I was not in my prefrontal cortex. I had let an old coping skill take over. Eating sugar was a way of handling life that I used in my childhood when things sucked and I felt I had no other choices. “This is what your brain needs,” it told me when clearly it is not what the grown-up part of me needs today. But that inner child part of me was scared.
Let me be clear, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with chocolate. Or with tequila or with wine or whatever you are doing right at this moment to survive the stress and anxiety of a global pandemic. This is serious stuff. This is life and death stress. This is not your average everyday anxiety. Don’t let anyone tell you “don’t panic, calm down, it’s no big deal.”
It’s a big deal.
How you react to this big deal pandemic can teach you a lot about yourself. It can reflect for you some important information. How you handle life and death stress will more tell you how you handled your childhood when things got tough. Cause that’s where we learn our survival strategies. That’s where we learn to cope. That’s where we go when things get bad.
Growing up, I spent my childhood mostly alone, by myself, or with a younger brother and sister to take care of. I had a single mother who worked the late shift as a nurse in the hospital Intensive care unit. I remember waiting up late nights trying to catch a glimpse of her when she came home, well after midnight. She was usually exhausted, burnt out, and suffering from migraines and post-traumatic stress. In the mornings she was asleep when I got up to go to school and was gone by the time I got home.
Food was a much more constant companion. It was a comfort to eat. No one was there to tell me what to eat, and so I didn’t make healthy choices. I was a kid. I was scared and lonely.
I had big fears and no one to talk to.
Eventually, I grew up. I made better choices. I got healthy. I learned to care for myself and for my children. Yet that little girl, alone and scared, is still inside of me.
Now, today, there are some big scary things going on. I am alone in LA, about to get on a plane to go to NYC. On the news it says “don’t travel, it could kill you.” Or at the very least, “you could kill the people you love.”
Of course, this triggers my old brain stem response. It makes sense I would regress to the old way of coping even while I know in my grown-up self I know it may not be the best way of dealing with things.
I think about getting on that plane. It’s scary. The whole damn world is scary.
But I am a grown-up. I can face the fear, act like an adult. Yes, this is serious. But I have some great coping skills today. I can take care of myself and I can take care of people who need me.
And apparently, unlike a lot of the country, I have plenty of toilet paper.
I think I also have a bottle of tequila somewhere.
Tammy Nelson, Ph.D. is a sex and relationship therapist, a TEDx speaker and the host of the podcast, The Trouble with Sex. She is the author of five books including the new release Integrative Sex & Couples Therapy. She can be found at www.drtammynelson.com