When Nothing is Normal What is a Normal Response?

Everyone responds and adjusts to change differently.  Unexpected and drastic changes are frequently accompanied by a flood of emotion. Our brain is searching for something that it recognizes before it responds.  When it is unable to find that frame of reference, it defaults to the most similar experience it can find and responds accordingly.

Coping in Uncertain Times

We are in a very uncertain time. Information and rules are changing daily. Sometimes, even more rapidly than that.  Almost overnight, we went from life as normal to being inundated with messages about medical risks and being ordered to physically isolate from one another. We either began experiencing financial concerns or someone we care about began to face that concern.  All of us have been thrown into a state of heightened stress and alertness. Our automatic crisis response has been activated.

In a crisis state your fight, flight or freeze response kicks into gear because that is what mobilizes us to survive. The intensity, length of time that you stay in that state, and what you do to manage the experience is what you want to pay attention to right now.

Our fight, flight and freeze response looks and functions differently when the threat is invisible and persistent.

Let’s take a look at each of these actions.

Today we fight by making masks to help our nurses and physicians. We go to work because our jobs are deemed essential for others to function despite our desire to stay at home. We reach out to family and friends virtually and through other safe means more frequently in order to show our love and support. We heed health precautions with a vigilance that we have never done before.

We take flight through random frenzied acts that may not make a lot of logic sense given the crisis at hand, but nonetheless, make us feel better. These acts allow us to get rid of the excess energy that we would otherwise use to run away if this virus was something visible that we could run away from. That, in addition to the endorphins, is why physical activity such as walking, running, dancing, scrubbing floors, cleaning cupboards, organizing closets, or working on repairs and remodeling projects have a calming effect right now.

We freeze by withdrawing from activities and/or drawing more into ourselves. The heightened state of arousal which accompanies the stress response is physically more taxing. It is common to experience increased fatigue and exhaustion. Normal tasks that we use to complete without effort may now take concentration and effort, which leads to feeling as if you are functioning in slow motion.

And Here’s the Normal Response to the Abnormal

At some point, each and every one of us is going to experience their own version of this response because this is a normal response to an abnormal situation. How long we stay in this state will vary. For some people, it will be brief. These individuals will establish a new equilibrium and then move forward. Some people will seem to do well initially, and then experience a delayed crisis response.  When and how people experience and respond to the crisis we are in has to do with genetics, past experiences, and their present support system.

Now is a time to be as kind and patient with yourself and those around you. If you or a person you live with are in flight, recognize that for what it is and know that it will pass. Understanding this is also the first step in being able to relax, which is needed to resume your normal level of productivity and balance.  If you are in fight mode, recognize that you can also only stay in that mode for a certain amount of time before you will use up your reserves, so do what you can, but also recognize the value of rest and self-preservation. If your body has defaulted to freeze, give yourself grace and recognize that this too should pass. Put more realistic expectations on yourself based on your energy level. But, make a point of adding in activities that you enjoy, that help you feel a sense of completion and self-worth.  

7 Ways to Cope with These Strange Times

Regardless of which crisis response you have defaulted to consider these options to help you cope with your situation:

  1.       Seek out activities and experiences that provide opportunities for laughter.
  2.       Be honest about how you are feeling with others
  3.       Increase your interaction with others (while respecting social distancing)
  4.       If you are spinning your wheels with frenzied activities, do a slower activity that is  enjoyable
  5.       If you are withdrawing, increase your activity level in a way that makes sense for you.
  6.       Get fresh air:  Go outside or open a window  
  7.       Be patient and supportive of yourself and those around you.

One of the awesome things about human nature and society is that we are wired similarly, but with enough variability that our strengths can complement one another.  Now is the best time to recognize and appreciate this as a strength. With a little luck, you have a safety net of people you can lean on as needed and these people can also lean on you.  Helping others and allowing others to help you is extremely important right now.

If you are experiencing any of the fight, flight, or freeze symptoms to a level that is overwhelming and consuming, and the above suggestions are not helpful, please reach out.  Help is available and the sooner you ask for help, the sooner things can get better. Our offices are still open and we are offering remote therapy sessions, aka e-therapy aka telehealth! Maintaining your mental health is equally as important now as your physical health. Call today if you think you need help.


About Dana Pendergrass

Dana Pendergrass, LMSW, received her BS in Psychology and her Master's in Social Work from Michigan State University. She specializes in working with people who are adjusting to a diagnosis of chronic illness, sleep disorders/challenges, or who have severe and intense anxiety. Her goal is to instill hope, help you quiet self-destructive chatter and give you the tools you need to make life better. She sees clients at Lifeologie Counseling Grand Rapids Cascade and Lifeologie Counseling Ada.

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