As I write this, we are more than thirteen months into pandemic life. Even as more and more people are getting vaccinated, and society is showing signs of opening back up, many of us feel more exhausted and more depleted now than we have from the start.
The term ‘burnout’ has been popping up often in conversations, commentary, and social media posts. The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational hazard that is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy.
Check, check, check, am I right? But WHO also makes explicit that burnout refers exclusively to employment and should not be applied to other experiences. Surely, I can’t be the only one who fits these criteria in other parts of my life, as well? Everything feels harder; it all takes so much more effort. Whether I am working, or parenting, or trying to engage with other people, I am going through the motions with a distinct lack of joy, excitement, and — most significantly — energy.
When it comes to our work we may be burned out, but when it comes to the rest of our lives, something else is going on.
Psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry explains that while small, predictable doses of stress are healthy and helpful for our development, stress that is prolonged, severe, and unpredictable can leave us vulnerable to both physical and mental health issues. The pattern of stress related to COVID-19 fits the latter. Death tolls spiking; advisories, recommendations, and policies constantly changing; the political and social climate racked with violence. We are still, literally, in survival mode; our bodies flooded with cortisol and other stress hormones, with the least sophisticated parts of the brain running the show. Our fatigue, aches and pains, and cognitive fog are likely related to this unrelenting stress and its cumulative impact on our bodies.
The brain has sophisticated and effective systems that kick into gear when a threat is perceived. You’re likely familiar with fight and flight: the brain sends signals to the body that speed up heart rate and blood flow and tense muscles in preparation to fight back or run away. When fight or flight are not accessible (more on this in a bit), we may move into a freeze response. Consider moments where you’ve been immobilized by panic, or unable to move or speak when faced with another person’s anger or aggression. This is freeze.
We can break freeze down into two distinct types of trauma responses. High activation freeze may look like stillness from the outside, but internally a lot is happening. Muscles are tightened, the heart is racing, senses are heightened. There is a great amount of energy and tension in the body, yet there is nowhere for the energy to go. You feel revved up yet halted. Imagine a pinball machine, a shaken snow globe, or hitting the gas and the brake at the same time.
If the threat is perceived to be severe enough, unpredictable enough, or chronic enough, we may move into low activation freeze or tonic immobility. Low activation freeze is sometimes referred to as collapse, and for good reason. It may both look and feel like paralysis. Energy is depleted, heart rate slows, the body is limp, loose, and unresponsive. You may feel trapped or stuck, and completely unable to connect with your own wants and needs.
Let’s back up for a minute. What does it mean for fight and flight to be inaccessible? In cases of interpersonal violence, this may mean the perpetrator is too big, strong, or fast for those responses to be effective. For this reason, freeze responses are more common in children and woman. In other cases, the nervous system may perceive threats that are socially unacceptable — or dangerous for other reasons — to respond to with aggression or fleeing. Microaggressions, bullying, and other slights by people in power can elicit the freeze response by allowing our bodies to hold the tension rather than allowing us to act on it. When it comes to pandemic stress, fight or flight won’t work because there is nothing tangible to fight back against or run from. So, again, our bodies hang onto the stress for us.
What can we do to move out of freeze? The answer lies in regulating the nervous system. So much of the advice given around nervous system regulation assumes that by ‘regulated’ we mean ‘relaxed.’ If you just deepen your breath, slow down your breath, and visualize this or that, you can achieve a zen-like state. The end goal of nervous system regulation is not, actually, relaxation. Neuroscientist Dr. Dan Siegel uses the acronym FACES to describe the characteristics of a regulated nervous system or integrated brain: flexible, adaptive, coherent, energized, and stable. Notice there is not an emotional state listed in that acronym. The goal is to be within your window; to have access to all parts of your brain and a whole host of experiences. Activation in the nervous system is related to all of this and more.
Think about it. If I am in a state of collapse, what I do not need is anything meant to further relax me: stillness, meditation, deep breathing, imagery. I need activation. I need energy. If I am in a state of high activation freeze, those techniques might support me but it is also possible that what I need first is release. Everything that has been pent-up needs a place to go. In both cases, the answer is less about relaxation and more about intentionally introducing activation into the body.
Activities that involve pendulation — oscillating between two states, like activation and grounding, or attuning to internal and external experiences — are powerful nervous system regulators as they allow the stress cycle to complete. Not all activation means dysregulation; introducing tolerable stress, pausing inside that activation, and then settling the body can help to discharge pent-up stress and anxiety while also strengthening our capacity to manage distress. Trauma-informed embodiment coach and educator Jane Clapp suggests a host of ways to get moving to heal. Some things to try:
Get into your kid. The types of movement children love and find soothing — dancing, shaking, bouncing, rocking — can all help to reset us. Engage in any of these rhythmic movements for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then allow your body to settle. Doing a couple of rounds of this can allow your body to release tension, while also repeatedly completing a full stress cycle.
Get strong. Exercise and specifically interval training can be especially beneficial, as again, activating and then settling the body can provide the feedback needed. No time nor energy to “work out”? Same! Just a couple intervals of jumping jacks, push-ups, or squats (even if completed while, ahem, hiding in a bathroom) followed by rest can be enough.
Get balanced. Working with balance allows the body to experience its righting reflex. That ‘zap’ you feel as you fall or something you’re building does, followed by settling in your body gives you feedback that you can and will live through stress cycles. Walk on your toes along an imaginary line on the floor, attempt to stack small items on top of each other, get creative and playful with balance challenges that feel appropriate for you.
Get out of your seat (if accessible). If you’re mostly seated during the day, especially in front of a screen, be sure to take breaks to stand and stretch or introduce any movement cited above. Stressful meeting or conversation? Turn off your video and jump around a bit, or yell (make sure you’re muted).
Above all, offer yourself patience, compassion, and grace. It is rough out here and you’re doing your best.
Written By Dr.Jennifer A. King and published on medium.com/wholistique, 06 Apr 2021
Dr. Jennifer A. King is the Co-Director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity and an Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.