words by Griffin Wynne (they/them)
It used to feel like stress arose from all the things we had to do. Work events. Friend’s parties. Yoga classes. Rush hour traffic. Before quarantine became the new normal, it seemed that stress was something caused by the external things in our lives — whether they be hectic or mundane.
The antidote to stress, then—the way to process or cope—was to take a sick day from work or a night off from going out. You’d put on cozy clothes to spend time at home by yourself. You’d turn your phone off for an hour and take a long bath. But in the wake of coronavirus, when all we can do is stay inside, alone, what once was the answer to stress is becoming the source of stress.
A night to ourselves has become feeling trapped at home. Wearing comfy clothes means not feeling motivated to do anything. Alone time has become full blown isolation. Our old coping mechanisms for stress don’t work anymore. We can’t distract ourselves with planning what outfit we’ll wear to our friend’s party next week, or bribe ourselves with an upcoming vacation or fancy dinner. We’ve been abruptly forced to live in the present.
But how do you live in the moment when there is nothing in the moment but fear and uncertainty? How do we process stress when we’re unable to leave our homes? And more, how do we engage our curiosity for what's to come without being swallowed in anxiety?
what once was the answer to stress is becoming the source of stress.
At the beginning of the pandemic, you were likely filled with new levels of panic and stress and anxiety. “Panic” stress is sudden, intense, and pushes our dopamine systems into overdrive.
You may have felt a desire to do or fix, or help or make. Maybe you were super involved in setting up a mutual aid fund for people of marginalized communities, or you read up on everything you could do to protect yourself.
According to Dr. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, the uptick in your dopamine system triggers the testosterone system (which yes, people of all genders have). When your testosterone system is triggered, it’s likely you’ll feel a rise in sex drive. You may want to masturbate or have more partner sex.
You may feel the desire to be held and touched and connected with. You may have planned Zoom parties and FaceTime brunches with all your loved ones. You may have tried to stay as connected as you could.
But your body doesn't stay in panic, or manic, or let’s make focaccia and Zoom-everyone-we-know mode forever. After a while, this panic turns into chronic stress, Dr. Fisher shares. Chronic stress decreases the dopamine system, making it harder to get and stay aroused. It makes it difficult to pay attention or to get excited about things. It makes it harder to feel happy and therefore unstressed.
So what can we do? It’s hard to know what’s going to make you feel better when nothing is making you feel anything at all. When you can’t even center yourself for five minutes to finish an email or wash the dishes, it can seem impossible to start planning for the great unknown of the post-corona future.
When Nothing Is Making You Happy: Cultivate Gratitude
Stress often comes from a sense of not being in control. And frankly, in these times, it’s completely warranted. People are losing their lives and livelihoods. We don’t know when it's going to end, or what life is going to be like in the future. We are completely out of control of everything that’s happening. But honestly—we always were.
Sure, we weren’t dealing with a global pandemic, but we’ve never had the ability to control other peoples’ actions. We’ve never been able to predict the future. We’re always unsure of what’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year. The only thing we can really control is our actions, reactions, and attitudes—but even those can be finicky.
Rather than seeing this as a terrible thing happening to you, consider thinking about how everyone else on the planet is also dealing with this tragedy. Consider thinking about what those with less than you are going through. Think of the ways that you are fortunate—be it having shelter, food, loved ones. Or perhaps you have the intellectual wherewithal to try to see this situation differently.
The only thing we can really control is our own actions, reactions, and attitudes.
Cultivate gratitude for your life, for everyone that has ever helped you get to where you are today. For the clothes you have on, for the food you have in your fridge, for the inbox of text messages you have from people that love you and want the best for you.
If you’re feeling really low, sit down and write a literal list of the things you are grateful for. Start with the most basic and boring things and see where it take you:
I’m grateful for the comfy sweatpants that I’m wearing that I stole from my friend.
I’m grateful for my friend.
I’m grateful that I got to go to college to meet my friend.
I’m grateful that I can read.
And so on.
When Nothing is Holding Your Attention: Break Down Your To-Do Lists
Sometimes we make goals for ourselves that are impossibly big, just so we never really have to try to accomplish them, and can we get by with doing nothing and saying, “Well, it was impossible to do that!”
The more you can’t focus on getting little tasks done, the more they build up until your to-do list is longer than a CVS receipt. Don’t try to “hunker down” and “bang it all out” in one sitting. You don’t need to reply to every email in your inbox right now. You don’t need to get back into your five mile running routine today. Frankly, you probably won’t!
Reply to one work email. Jog for ten minutes. Work for twenty minutes and then dance for five. Call a friend, then eat a snack.
Breaking down your tasks into smaller micro-tasks is a practice of accountability, while encouraging you to celebrate yourself in between them. It will make you feel capable and stimulated.
When You Want to Indulge All Your Vices: Find Healthy Coping Mechanisms
When you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed, it’s natural to want to find comfort. And while canceling on Pilates class to have an extra glass of wine and some junk food is good for the soul, drinking more alcohol and eating a ton of sugar won’t help you process your stress in the long run, especially if you’re replacing healthier habits with unhealthier ones.
Ask yourself what is it that you need? More rest? More water? Less time on Instagram?
Think of little things you can do everyday to improve your wellness: meditate for five minutes before you start work. Drink more water throughout the day. Make it a point to go outside or to get some motion in your daily routine. Turn your phone off every night during dinner.
It’s easy to continue doing the things that are hurting you and then to complain about it, only to feel grouchy and resentful. It’s much harder (but more rewarding) to look at the ways you are complicit in your own unhappiness and make the changes that will make you feel better.
When You Can’t Stop Overanalyzing: Do a body check (or watch a bad TV show)
With so much free time and so little contact with others, it’s easy to get super introspective. While it’s important to be mindful, there’s a fine line between reflecting on the past and completely over-analyzing everything you’ve ever done. When you feel your thoughts starting to go on loop, try doing a body-check.
Where are you right now? How does it feel to be there? What is the temperature? How do your clothes feel on your body? How does the ground feel under your feet or the chair under your legs? Where are you holding tension?
Tuning into your body helps you recenter and come back to the present moment. Give yourself permission to turn your brain off. Watch a bad reality TV show. Read a sappy teen drama. Call your kookie hippie aunt who will tell you all about her Ben & Jerry’s computer mousepad. You don’t need to solve all of your emotional trauma in one night. Find things that let your brain rest and make you smile.
When the future seems like bottomless pit of anxiety: Find ways to bring what you’ve learned into the future
Though your Zoom yoga teacher may tell you to “live in the moment,” it’s impossible to never think about what’s going to happen in the coming months and being curious about the future can help you set goals for yourself. In times of immense stress, looking ahead can be a welcome escape from reality and the bottomless pit of anxiety.
When you feel yourself getting lost in all the unknowns, try to think about the things you want to bring in the future with you.
Even when it doesn't feel like it, there are things you’ve learned about yourself and creative ways you've learned to adapt.
Do you want to be more relaxed about your dress code at work? Do you want to take more mental health days? Maybe you’ve enjoyed cooking in quarantine and know that even now that some bars and restaurants are open, you want to have one night a week where you make a big meal.
Maybe you matched with someone on a dating app, and after having the worst FaceTime conversation of all time, were super grateful you didn’t actually meet this person for a date, and now you want to be in the habit of FaceTiming dates before meeting up, to save yourself time and money.
Even when it doesn't feel like it, there are things you’ve learned about yourself and creative ways you've learned to adapt. Thinking about how you can implement those lessons in the future can help you greet the coming months with excitement and curiosity, rather than fear and stress.