Navigating a “Chronic Crisis”
*This is an article from the Fall 2020 issue of Contentment Magazine.
By Cynthia Ackrill, MD, PCC, FAIS
This whole spring and summer felt a bit like being permanently stuck in line at Disney World — every time you round another corner, certain it’s finally your turn to have some fun (or make any progress or plans), you face another whole packed set of snaking queue barriers with no end in sight! Aargh!
September marches on… and we’ve lost count of the days, weeks, months we’ve spent “dealing” with the ravages of Covid-19, massive life disruption, economic instability, and facing the horrific crimes of racism. It’s exhausting to keep processing all this, let alone attempt to calm our over-alarmed nervous systems!
Where is that clever guidebook or cheerful Disney character (or trustworthy, unified leadership!) to help you negotiate this uncertainty or reassure you that you are even in the right line for that ride to a healthy, financially stable, and meaningfully engaged life?
Our brains and bodies are well-prepared to handle an acute challenge. You can be belting out a song, cruising down the highway and suddenly and, without any conscious thought, find yourself in the other lane having narrowly escaped an accident. Your brain took in the pending problem and moved you into action before you could even say, “Watch out!” Your heart races, your breath is shallow, and your hands may tremble as your adrenaline soars. But in about 20 minutes your physiology will be drifting back to baseline. This is the acute stress response at its finest.
But when the challenge continues, the stressors add up, or the “crisis” lingers, we are not as adaptive unless we take measures to process the stress. Cortisol kicks in, appropriately at first, but then stays elevated. Then, without meaningful action and intentional cognitive practices, the chronic stress reaction becomes toxic to your mental and physical well-being. It uses up enormous energy that should be applied to restoring homeostasis, building immunity, repairing cells, and maintaining the proper functioning of every system of your mind and body. You may find yourself not thinking as effectively or controlling your mood as well. Your patience may wane. Or you may just be more tired, have more trouble sleeping, more headaches, gut symptoms, or pain.
During prolonged stress or uncertainty, it is normal to start searching for external cues to make sense of the situation. After all, your brain’s first job is to keep you safe! And to that end, you are wired to scan for danger and signs of certainty. When the landscape around you keeps delivering threats, dashed hopes, or just conflicting signals, it’s time to find your strength and direction from within.
What can you do when the drama drags on? With routines and roadmaps out the window, it’s time to pull out your inner GPS, starting with what you most care about and what you already know for sure (but can easily forget in your busy-ness):
- What’s really important to you — the long-haul perspective?
Reflecting on values has actually been shown to reverse some of the neurochemical and psychological effects of stress.1 This also forces you into a bigger perspective when your stressed brain tends to get narrowly stuck on immediate challenges, rewriting the past, or fictionalizing the worst of the future.
- What has worked for you in the past?
This has multiple benefits. It moves you out of the natural negativity of stress into more powerful strengths-based approaches. And self-affirmation of your resources has been shown to buffer against stress.2 What are your innate strengths? What strategies have gotten you through other low points in life?
Make sure during this reflection you also consider what aspects of self-care work for you — that’s the foundation for your physiological and psychological strength.
- What does not work for you?
Too often, the more “go-to behaviors” under duress are mal-adaptive. Recognize what tends to trip you up and re-focus on those you captured in question 2.
You are not alone if just reading those 3 not-so-little questions makes you a bit uneasy. Many of us have perfected the art of “busy” to avoid possibly uncomfortable self-reflection. The human brain finds some comfort in the illusion of certainty of status quo, even when said state is less than healthy or happy.
But along comes this massive disruption forcing us all to re-evaluate status quo. Turns out this crisis has many reconsidering their career and life choices,3 and even relationships!4 But how do you even begin that process when you are so tired and unsettled?
Start by using the questions above with a light and compassionate heart. This isn’t a matter of “getting it right” or beating yourself up for every “wrong” turn you’ve taken. (Way too many bruises for me!) Nor is it time to make fast or rash decisions or delude yourself that an airtight master plan will wipe out all uncertainty. But it is a great opportunity to set aside some time to get curious about the possible gifts of this chaos.
10 helpful tips for exploring the world of possibilities beyond status quo:
- Set aside specific times with boundaries or you can drive yourself crazy!
- Calm your body to calm your mind before you start. You cannot access creativity and wiser thinking if your brain is fighting fires. Simple breathwork will usually do the trick. Add a few stretches for extra credit. If you feel really keyed up, move — your body is designed for action in response to stress, so taking a walk first will physically dispel some stress.
- Create a ritual for yourself that reassures your brain that it’s safe to go into curious and creative mode. Your brain loves cues. Your brain loves fun. Favorite tea, good music, fun pen? Don’t laugh — little things mean a lot to your brain.
- Dedicate a notebook to these questions and thoughts. Writing helps you process, find clarity, and heal.5 Having a place to park these explorations helps you capture your own wisdom. Make running lists — this is not a one and done process!
- Remind yourself this is exploration, play, looking from different viewpoints, thinking about fit… even if the stakes feel high. (Breathe again!) Creativity blossoms when the more you let go.
- Use colors and pictures to engage non-verbal processing and wisdom.
- Stuck deciding on something? Put ideas/choices on sticky notes where you can see them for a few days (bathroom mirror?) and let them percolate to clarity.
- Make some of this a family/team/buddy activity. Ex: Make a family values board. The Good Project has a good card sort exercise.6
- Do the same for strengths. VIACharacter.org offers a great assessment with a kid’s version as well. Again — great family or team activity!
- Never, ever forget that you are not alone, even though it may feel like it. Chances are someone else would love to help you think things through. Don’t you like to help others?
What if one of the best gifts of 2020 is the chance to reconnect within to feel more control of your life choices, or how you will spend your precious energy and attention, even when the current situation is beyond control? Maybe you’ll find you are happy with your status quo? Thoughtfully renewing your commitment can be hugely energizing and give you the resilience to ride the storm.
Or maybe you take this time to strategize some course changes. Whichever, taking time to capture your wisdom and orient to your values is always well spent — and a good way to regain a bit of control and sanity in this “chronic crisis.”
- Creswell, J.D., Welch, W.T., Taylor, S.E., Sherman, D.K., Gruenewald, T.L., & Traci Mann. T. (2005). Affirmation of personal values buffers neuroendocrine and psychological stress responses. Psychol Sci, 16(11), 846-51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01624.x
- Sherman, D. K., Bunyan D. P., J Creswell D., & Jaremka L. M.(2009). Psychological vulnerability and stress: the effects of self-affirmation on sympathetic nervous system responses to naturalistic stressors. Health Psychology. 28, 554.