We didn’t see it coming. The past few weeks came as a shock and I think we are only now starting to get our heads around what just happened.
Our first reaction was shock and disbelief. A lot of us went into denial, refusing to believe this was serious. You could often hear comments such as “it’s just the flu” or “it will pass quickly“. But as weeks went by the disbelief grew and reality hit. We were facing a pandemic.
Those past few weeks have indeed been very challenging. I’ve witnessed various stages of reactions: after the shock and the denial came resistance and anger ; not wanting things to be this way, fighting reality in various ways. Then anxiety started to kick in as we realised this quickly became out of our control.
Most of us experienced anxiety symptoms. Tightness in the chest, heart pounding, sweaty hands, insomnia and uncontrollable tears. We realised that if it wasn’t our health that was too much at risk (but how can we be sure?), then it might be our elderly’s ones ; and if they were safe then the next concerns became about our financial and professional future. Were we going to make it? And then isolation kicked in before we even had time to figure this one out.
Now that we are in a lockdown phase we are deeply isolated from the rest of the world. That triggers a new set of emotions from loneliness to feeling suffocated by family members ; maybe we are facing a loss of sense of purpose ; maybe it’s the uncertainty as to how long this is going to last and if we’ll ever go back to normalcy ; and maybe we grieve what we’ve lost, a life that will certainly never be the same again ; all this on top of the existing anxiety that hasn’t gone away yet as we are still deep in the unknown.
More than ever we are facing strong emotions. But as human beings we usually avoid them if they are painful. Our culture, our upbringing has conditioned us to run away from pain and only seek comfort and pleasure. But this comes with a cost.
Generally most emotions are processed easily. We cry them out or shout our anger. Maybe exercise helps us exorcise those overwhelming feelings. And most of the time we only feel them for a short period of time and one at the time anyway.
But at the moment we are in a constant state of unsettledness. We don’t know what’s going to happen nor for how long. We are facing first a health crisis that will certainly be quickly followed by an economic one. Once we deal with one strong emotion, we haven’t yet had time to recover that we are thrown into the next one. We are in a constant state of stress and flight-or-fight response. And that’s not good news.
Our body is not designed to stay in such a heightened state of stressful response for a long time. If it lasts it depletes our energy, our adrenal glands and our body burns out which can lead to chronic illnesses. On an emotional level such a global traumatic experience, if unaddressed, can lead to post traumatic stress disorder. So we need to learn how to deal with it now.
Avoiding uncomfortable emotions is a natural learnt human response and probably the default reaction for most of us in the western world. Some of us deal with this by numbing or distracting ourselves as to not feel this discomfort. We either lose ourselves in the various entertainment devices available out there or we distract ourselves in addictive substances (food, alcohol, drugs) or behaviours (gambling, working, sex for example).
Another way we avoid our feelings is to rush around to make ourselves very busy so we don’t have to think nor feel. Making sure we catch up on everything we’ve postponed until now – spring cleaning, learning how to grow your own garden, learning how to knit, redecorating the house from top to bottom, signing up to multiple online courses – to name a few. We tackle those projects we’ve always wanted to do, we contact everyone we know to avoid facing ourselves. In other words, we are restless.
Or we turn to another great addiction: our mind. We start to overanalyse and overthink, engaging in pointless obsessive thoughts about the situation, the future, all the possible case scenarios (usually the worst ones), all the possible solutions and a 5-years-detailed plan for every possible scenario. In other words we move to our head and desert our body as to not feel our emotions.
Or we use the award-winning strategy to avoid feeling anxiety: we try to control everything. Either by frantically looking for everything and everyone we can control around us – planning, organising, doing, doing doing ; or alternatively we complain extensively about the situation, wanting it to be different and subconsciously believing that by complaining and fighting what is, we are in control.
Bottom line, we are very good at avoiding and not feel. But those difficult emotions don’t go away and it would be much healthier to face them and avoid a backlog that can soon become a ticking bomb.
Don’t run away from yourself anymore. I invite you to use those inwards times to look inside, to learn about yourself in a way you may have never before. To embrace uncertainty, to accept with humility that we don’t know what the future holds or if we even have a future. But what’s the point of all this if we don’t come out as better people? And how can we grow if we avoid who we are, what we feel?
The world is experiencing an epidemic of change. All our usual structures and bearings have collapsed. We can’t continue our old auto-pilot way to live as it’s no longer adapted to the current reality. And because everything is changing we are also inevitably invited to change. Firstly because our familiar life has been brutally interrupted ; and secondly because in the midst of all this our old coping mechanisms are also being unsettled. So it is an opportunity to let those old mental and emotional structures collapse as well and reinvent ourselves.
What is it about your old life that you would like to change? In your home environment, in your work place, in your work-life balance, in your personal life, in your daily habits? And most importantly what is it in your internal world that could do with a revamp? What old behaviours, ways of thinking and relating to others can you let go of? Who do you want to become?
This is an opportunity to start over again. A second chance to define who we want to become and how we want to live. Let’s not miss it.