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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

1. Daydream, memories, happy places, relax, expect a little less of myself, move in ways I enjoy….

3. Plan some rewards….

4. Set small achievable goals….make a tick list

Then, before you try to take any more action, make a plan, a maintenance programme for looking after yourself more intensively because you are slightly more stressed than usual. Think of it like a simple equation - extra stress = extra care. By taking this approach you can encourage your body/mind to continue to be effective and productive because you’ve taken account of the extra toll life is taking on you right now.

How might you balance your equation? Here are some suggestions that work for most people:

  • Imagine whatever it is that would feel most relaxing to you right now. Lean back, close your eyes and smile. Maybe it’s bathing in a warm sea, or walking in the hills, or cuddling up with a loved one or a pet. Imagine it in as much detail as possible - and feel any tightness, tension, discomfort just draining away from your body as you simply smile and imagine. Imagine this special place, and that just for a moment you can’t be bothered, simply can’t be bothered with anything at all - as if for a while you are just a dreamy rag-doll and the rest of the world is carrying on without you. Do this every day.

  • Think of one simple, pleasant task that needs doing. Leave all the big complex stuff for now and just get a small thing done. Maybe an untidy drawer of personal things that’s been bugging you, or giving yourself a manicure (or a beard trim!). Or write a message to a friend. It can be anything. Any small easy achievement can spur us on to want to achieve more

  • Alternatively, create a reward system for yourself. If you find yourself drawn to watching movies all the time, make your next movie a reward that you’ll only allow yourself when you’ve completed a task

  • If completing a task seems too much then simply resolve to start one. You can promise yourself that all you are going to do is begin and do five minutes or whatever. It’s amazing how many times people to this and miraculously end up finishing the task

  • Connect with the outdoors/fresh air/something green and natural. Normally here I would just say ‘go for a walk’ but that’s not possible for everyone right now. But the closer we can get to the feelings of being outdoors the better. When we are feeling sluggish it’s sometimes hard to make ourselves do this, but moving away from four square walls and closer to freedom is probably the greatest mood-changer of all. Stand at a doorway to outside, go for a walk if you can, create an area of plants and greenery indoors, open a window, go out in the garden.

  • Move. You don’t have to think of it as ‘exercise’, you have a body and it wants to move and it plays up if you don’t. If you like following a guru on screen that’s great, but you can get your body’s systems and fluids moving and benefiting, and improve your mood simply by moving around. Anything from vigorous housework to going into a private space and making up dances to your favourite music counts as healthy movement. Even walking on the spot will get your heart beating nicely and your energy levels up

  • Make a list. Make it a shortlist if long lists just make you feel worse. Write down three or four achievable things for the day and tick each one off as you do it. Each tick creates a rush of feel-good chemicals that makes you want more of the same. You could combine your shortlist with the ‘reward’ system if you wanted to - each tick equals a small reward

  • Take a notebook (or use your phone/computer) and at the end of each day take a few minutes to write a short ‘report’ on what you have done. Write everything you can remember about how you spent your time. This helps you remember and value things that might not otherwise ‘count’. Try to describe everything as if it had value eg enjoyed some rest, wrote a list of things to do, as well as anything you feel truly proud of

  • Finally, give yourself a little message to nudge yourself repeatedly every day. The ‘Progress Principle is a good one: Every day I will make progress on one thing that really matters to me. Note it says ‘make progress’ ie move forward in some way.

We don’t necessarily have to complete something to feel as if we are on our way again, we just need to feel we are moving towards achieving something.

You can do it!

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