May 11, 2020
During this pandemic, I keep hearing questions like, “Why am I so tired? Why is it so difficult to develop a routine at home? Why does it feel like I can’t think right now? My memory is not working as well… I can’t focus or pay attention… I just feel down... numb… uncomfortable,” and so on. These questions are coming from everyone, whether they’re directly impacted by COVID-19 or not. These symptoms may seem illogical or confusing, especially if you or your loved ones haven’t actually gotten sick. So if these symptoms aren’t because of the virus, where are they coming from? And, even more importantly, how can you reduce them so you feel more like your regular self again?
The answers may surprise you. These symptoms are a direct result of your nervous system reacting to what it interprets as unsafe conditions over a prolonged period of time. When our nervous systems are active in this way, we’re not using the logical, analytical parts of our brains, which is why it can feel like the symptoms don’t make any sense. These symptoms aren’t coming from the parts of the brain that make sense of things; these symptoms are coming from the parts of the brain that react to danger.
You may have heard of the Fight, Flight, Freeze (FFF) nervous system response that happens when we are physically threatened. Sometimes it doesn’t take an actual physical threat to activate that nervous system response: it can be activated by a perceived threat, like when we’re startled by something and our hearts begin to race, or if we have a panic attack. Another way this system activates is if there are radical changes to our lifestyle and daily living that last for a long while and have an uncertain outcome… exactly like the current pandemic situation.
The symptoms in this case are more mild, and instead of feeling like fighting, fleeing, or freezing, we may feel on edge, like we’re constantly waiting for the next bad thing to happen. And along with the symptoms I mentioned above (exhaustion, numbness, lack of focus), we can also experience: generalized restlessness, lack of pleasure in things we usually enjoy, and ongoing stomach issues, just to name a few. This is known as dysregulation of the nervous system (rather than a full FFF response).
So what can we do about all this? The good news is that there are several ways you can address these symptoms, and send the message to your body that you are safe and it’s okay to relax the constant monitoring (which is known as hypervigilance). The not-as-good news is that you’ll need to practice one or more of these methods daily throughout the course of the pandemic. Just like exercise, it’s something you need to do regularly in order to keep your nervous system calm and fit, ready to respond if there is a clear and present danger.
Here are some ways to calm your nervous system and bring the logical part of your brain back online, along with brief descriptions, and ways you can access related resources. Just remember, it can take time for your nervous system to respond to these interventions, especially when you’re just starting out; if it doesn’t feel like it’s working right away, that’s to be expected, just keep practicing.
If you are anxious, on edge, restless, agitated, or struggling with focus and attention, you will need to calm your nervous system down, so try one or more of these methods:
If you are feeling numb, sluggish, unable to move, heavy, out of body, or unable to think clearly, you need to rev your nervous system up a little bit and get moving, so try one or more of these:
If you’re experiencing a combination of symptoms, you can combine any of the above options, and also try these:
If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms, be reassured that they are a normal and expected nervous system response to the life changing circumstances in which we currently find ourselves. Most of the people you know are also experiencing them to some degree, and first responders may experience them in a delayed fashion after the current crisis has eased or passed. Have compassion for yourself during this time and try to have compassion for others as well: we don’t know what the people around us (if we are venturing out) are going through in their lives at the moment.
Here are some additional resources to consider:
Hi, my name is Lanie Hopping and I’m a psychotherapist with Compass Counseling and Psychology Services. I specialize in working with people who suffer chronic pelvic pain and other sexual health/happiness issues, especially within the LGBTQIA+ community. I have a broad range of clinical experience and training, including two sexual therapy and health certificates from the University of Michigan, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training Level 1, and EMDR training from a somatic and attachment based perspective. I am conducting teletherapy during the pandemic and trying to keep my nervous system regulated as well! My regulation methods include riding my bike, roller skating outdoors, walking my pups, reading, listening to audiobooks and podcasts when I’m having trouble focusing enough to sight read, and scrolling Instagram for all of the cute puppy and otter accounts. And of course, we can’t forget… remembering to breathe.