Right now, the current COVID-19 threat is causing most people to experience a heightened state of anxiety and fear. Adrenaline levels become elevated as a result. It’s a situation that has activated our natural survival instinct, the fight-flight-freeze response, often referred to as the stress response. All living beings share this survival mechanism and, as the name suggests, it is vital to survival.
The stress response shows up in three different types of behaviours:
- Fight – this behaviour is all about action. So whether it’s addressing the threat head on (imagine punching a tiger on the snout), or doing things that keep the threat at bay (think social distancing).
- Flight – this behaviour is about avoiding the threat (imagine running a way from the tiger) or pretending that it’s not there (think dismissing the current situation as hype).
- Freeze – this behaviour shows up as confusion, where we get stuck in limbo as we can’t make decisions between choices (think mental tennis). We end up making no choice at all, or feel paralysed because we are thinking about the worst case scenario, leaving us utterly disempowered (think snowball gathering snow until it becomes a crushing avalanche).
In a previous blog post, we touched on how we react to perceived threats.
In today’s blog, we are focussing on the fight behaviour of the stress response. That’s because it’s one that many people are displaying in the face of the COVID-19 threat. Specifically, we are going to look at how our intentions can sometimes go bad and make a difficult situation worse – even though they are often good and well placed.
Not all heroes wear capes
As we’ve seen from the overwhelming response the NHS has received in its appeal for volunteers, an enormous number of people – heroes in their own right – are wanting to tackle the COVID-19 crisis head on. They are reacting with a fight, or go into action response.
The fight response is being seen up and down the country – whether it’s signing up to be a NHS volunteer, or community groups helping vulnerable local residents. But while many of us want to be heroes and help as best we can to ease the distress being experienced by many of our peers, it can have less than helpful, albeit unintended consequences.
We have identified three main areas where good intentions can go bad…
1. Rescuer resentment
Sometimes, we get so involved helping others that we neglect ourselves and our own wellbeing. Consider the NHS frontline staff who are working extraordinarily long hours at the moment. Or supermarket employees who are stacking shelves around the clock to ensure we are all kept fed. These individuals risk expending all of their available resources because they are so focussed on what they’re doing,
The problem when you deplete everything that you have in your tank is that it takes longer to fully recover. While it’s okay, and indeed appropriate to do this occasionally, regularly using up everything you’ve got (without refuelling) will eventually result in feelings of resentment. You might find that you are resentful of others for seemingly taking advantage of you and expecting you to give more than you’ve actually got. In turn, this can lead to being snappy, impatient and critical to the very people you set out to help in the first place.
2. The burden of knowing best
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in lots of advice being issued regarding what people should and shouldn’t be doing. Stuff like staying at home and only popping out to exercise or buy essentials has become the norm (for the time being at least, anyway).
This has led many of us developing a perceived sense of what is right and wrong. This results in an overwhelming compulsion to set others straight. When we see someone doing something that we think they shouldn’t be doing, the tendency for us is to take action. Whether that’s saying something or doing something, we feel we need to act.
But in many of these situations, we aren’t actually in control. For example, we can’t physically make someone stay at home. Likewise, we can’t make someone wear a face mask when they are out in public. This frustrates us and can bump up our adrenaline levels even more creating the pressure of enforcing what we believe is best. The risk here is that we alienate those around us by judging them and lecturing them on what they should and shouldn’t do. We then also feel angry with them for not doing what we think is best for them.
3. Hero hangover
When we are helping others, it gives us a good feeling. We have a profound sense of value and purpose and others appreciate what we are doing. This is a beautiful, warm and powerful feeling. But it’s a feeling we can get addicted to (like most things that feel good).
However, as with most elevated experiences, there is usually a come down. We refer to this as ‘hero hangover’.
By neglecting to look after our own resources and chasing the next hero high, we deplete our resources beyond what we can tolerate. We don’t prioritise eating properly, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep. This creates a real risk of us crashing, leading to debilitating headaches, aching muscles, low mood and being vulnerable to becoming ill.
So what can you do to avoid bad outcomes?
First and foremost, to reduce the chances of good intentions going bad, you need to remember to also look after yourself. Remember that adage of oxygen mask on yourself first before assisting others.
Start by banking the basics. This means ensuring that you are eating good, regular, healthy meals and consuming enough water each day. Prioritise sleep and make sure you are getting enough good quality sleep every night. How much you need will depend on you as an individual. At the end of the day, you know when you’ve had enough and when you haven’t. For more information see this previous blog.
Exercise and stretches to limber up can also be helpful when the adrenaline in your body has caused your muscles to tighten. Consider adding some simple breathing exercises to help you relax even further. Sit or stand, draw your elbows back a little to allow your chest to expand and then take a deep breath in through your nose to the count of five and then breathe out to the count of seven.
Remember, it ‘ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it’.
By paying attention to what state you are in when you are doing something (anything), you are more likely to yield better results. For example, if you are hungry, tired, worried, etc. there’s a good chance you’ll not be as effective with your efforts – which is why practising your ABC First Aid for Feelings can be so helpful (more on this shortly),
Pacing is power
Pacing is extremely helpful as it ensures you have enough energy left to see a task through. Setting off all guns blazing can result in you suddenly hitting a wall, which isn’t helpful for anyone. Our current collective experience is a marathon not a sprint and so pacing your energy to make sure you can cross the finish line is vital.
As a rule of thumb, don’t spend every ounce you’ve got in the tank and go to bed feeling completely empty. Leave at least 5-10% in your tank at all times and recuperating each day won’t be quite as hard. Stopping when you feel really tired as opposed to becoming totally exhausted could be all it takes to keep you fighting fit and in a position to help.
Also, consider negotiating when things are done to keep your tasks and actions manageable each day. For example, decide if something is urgent or just important. Can it wait for a couple of days, or must it be done immediately? A lot of the time, we can temporarily postpone tasks with little or no impact. Just be sure that everyone’s expectations, including your own, are managed accordingly.
Focus on your sphere of influence
It goes back to another topic we touched on in our previous blog post: our sphere of influence. In other words, we can only control what is within our sphere of influence. Not everything is and that’s okay! Focus on what you can control. Reminding yourself that even though a number of factors are currently outside of your control, some factors clearly are within your control, so take action with those.
Remember to check in with yourself on a regular basis – what are you thinking, feeling and doing? By practising your ABC for feelings, you can acknowledge unhelpful feelings and behaviours, and shift to more helpful ones, reducing your risk of rescuer resentment, burden of knowing best or hero hangover.
I recently shared an insight on Facebook of an experience I had at the supermarket, and how practising my ABC for feelings really helped. You can read more about that here.
While there is definitely lots of scope right now to help others – for those of us privileged enough to be able to help – we all need to make sure we’re keeping ourselves fit so we’re in a position to help. Step up your level of self-care, pay attention to the details you can control and you’ll stand yourself in much better stead to be helpful.
You’ll discover how to:
- Help yourself feel better straight away
- Work with your brain and your body to respond better to challenges
- Get curious about your feelings and why they show up
- Have more helpful self-talk
- Pace to manage stress, pain and fatigue and reduce where possible
Till next time, go gently with yourself and stay safe.
All the best, Thor