When living on ‘alert’ ruins your plans

I am talking to clients at the moment (Zoom sessions of course!) who are puzzled.

They are puzzled by their lack of productivity and their failure to get going again under these stay at home or restricted conditions. Decisions at work (if they are at work) seem more difficult, more emotional and things that go wrong seem so much worse.

Other clients are disappointed and frustrated. They saw this time as an opportunity to plan, create, move forward, take stock and make decisions. Perhaps they even imagined themselves coming out of this period making exciting changes. In some ways, it seemed a gift. And yet, to their dismay, day after day has passed when all they want to do is watch Netflix, go for long walks or fiddle about aimlessly feeling bad about what they aren’t doing.

As one client told me ‘I am so annoyed with myself, I had all these plans to create something new for my business, I thought this was the time, but I just can’t do it. I just switch on the TV.’

During challenging periods like this coronavirus pandemic, for some people anxiety gets intolerable - the body sends symptoms which are different in different people, but most people know they are unwell and need to act to get help. Fortunately, many mental health providers are recognising this and offering free or affordable help - including our own on-line service of course.

But today it isn’t seriously debilitating anxiety I am addressing.

I’m talking about the kind of anxiety that hovers around just below the surface. The kind we can often carry when there is an ever-present threat. It is this just-below-the-surface anxiety that causes the frustrating lack of productivity and creativity many people are experiencing. It also explains why previously calm people catastrophize and melt-down when something goes wrong, whereas before they responded with logic and pragmatism to negative events.

This ‘underground’ anxiety also drains energy. It’s one of the things that causes the mismatch between the deep down desire to get things done and the reality of preferring to sit on the sofa and watch a screen.

When our mind/body perceives that there is a background threat, especially one we cannot control, it's as if our ‘alert and ready’ dial is turned up but not yet full-on.

By contrast, when we are facing an immediate and serious threat we are triggered automatically into our flight and fight mode - the ‘alert and ready’ mode’ tips over into full-blown action. Our bodies recognise a threat to survival and crank up all the mechanisms that operate an efficient and effective stress response.

We need to take on the threat and defeat it (fight) or we need to escape it (flight). In fact, there is a third mechanism called ‘freeze’ where effectively, when all else fails, we are ‘frozen’ into inactivity (hence petrified with fear). This fight/flight/freeze response is a great mechanism for getting us out of real trouble, like being under attack, or jumping back to escape an on-coming bus when we’ve set off to cross the road.

However, when the ‘alert and ready’ dial is turned up pretty high because there is the kind of threat that is less urgent but still there all the time, then we don’t necessarily acknowledge that we are actually stressed. There isn’t anything we can do to diminish our stress right away and so we get used to living with it, it can start to feel ‘normal’. After all, we are coping, functioning, feeling largely like ourselves and life goes on.

The problem is that this ever-present background awareness of stress, worry and fear is still an elevated stress level. It means that stress chemicals are circulating in our bodies, keeping us closer to the point where we could be triggered into that flight/fight/freeze response if necessary.

Being in this state is as if we are a computer with an energy-consuming programme running constantly in the background, draining the battery power all the time. Everything else on the computer might appear to be functioning well, but the reality is that it has less capacity because of this extra programme using up energy.

How can you tell if you are running this energy-draining programme in the background?

Check-in with yourself and see if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Finding it difficult to let go and relax, even when you have the opportunity

  • Dithering about not getting things done (more than usual)

  • Difficulty sleeping (or wanting to sleep all the time)

  • Putting things off to tomorrow (or next week)

  • A general feeling of agitation, unable to settle

  • Irritability, lack of patience with self and others

  • Unusual sluggishness in the mornings

  • More tearful/emotional than usual

  • Feeling annoyed with yourself for wasting time

  • Escaping too often into passive entertainment (screens, games etc)

  • Hard to motivate yourself to exercise

  • Snacking when not hungry

If you recognise yourself in what I’ve written above what can you do?

First, just acknowledge that things are different. Take account of the fact that you have this energy-draining alert-and-ready programme running in the background of your life. Ease up on yourself and rather than expecting more of yourself because you suddenly have the time, expect a little less. Reduce your expectations to adjust for the amount of energy you actually have, but don’t let go of all expectations because we all have a need to achieve things and feel a sense of reward when we do.

My (amended) Lockdown Plans