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Permission to Rest: Managing the Chronic Stress Response due to COVID-19

Permission to Rest: Managing the Chronic Stress Response due to COVID-19

Having the time is not the same thing as having the capacity. Read that again slowly and take it in. This new reality we are living in is exhausting. Do you find yourself feeling tired all the time or completely worn out by things that never used to seem so taxing? Struggling to get motivated to do anything? What you are experiencing is a trauma response to what is happening in our world right now. Everything can feel heavier than it normally does because we are overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness, fear, and confusion.

You might have heard of the fight, flight or freeze response that occurs when we perceive a threat. And if you haven’t noticed, the world is so full of threats right now that we are being quarantined to our homes to avoid them. We are facing threats to our health and the health of our loved ones, threats to our financial stability and futures, and threats to our way of life. All of these threats are forcing us to significantly alter our lives and our mental health is suffering as a result. It can be difficult, and at times not possible, to maintain ourselves in this ongoing state of arousal without an eventual crash. Each time we read another article about COVID-19 or watch another press conference with bad news, our amygdala is working tirelessly to engage. In “normal” times, our body’s stress response system has time to recover once the threat has passed, but what happens when the threat doesn’t pass?

When we don’t have time to recover, we experience what is referred to as the Chronic Stress Response and it is characterized by some of the following symptoms: extreme irritability, headaches, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, feeling helpless, changes in appetite, overall nervousness and more. Sound familiar? Your quarantined family biting each other’s heads off? Crying over relatively small inconveniences? We are all experiencing some level of Chronic Stress at this time. This stress is only amplified by people losing their jobs or continuing to work amidst the threats we are facing. During these challenging times we are also being bombarded with messages encouraging us to “make the most of this time” or asking us for more productivity and engagement. We are placing pressure on ourselves and each other to use our time in a meaningful way when we are already depleted, irritable, and scared. We need to instead equally practice compassion for ourselves during this time and respect our limits. Self-care is not just a buzz word or something you do when things are going well, it is a crucial component of maintaining your health, particularly when your internal resources are running low.

So yes, we may be at home more during this unusual time and because of that it may seem as if we have more “free” time, but “free” time does not always equate to meaning that we have the capacity to learn a new skill, be more productive, or even remain actively engaged with each other. We are worn down by our physiological response to the world and we need to focus on taking care of ourselves. When we choose not to watch yet another press conference or to not read another article about COVID-19, we are giving our amygdala a break to reset itself. There is a difference between informed and overloaded and, during these times, it can be easy to fall into the second category. It is important to give yourself (and your nervous system) a break during these stressful times. Without proper breaks and adequate self-care, it can be difficult to meet the demands you have to achieve, like work, parenting, being a good partner, and taking care of your health. These threats will not last forever and we need to show ourselves compassion in the midst of the struggle. It’s okay to not have the energy to take on new things or be overly productive, we all need a bit more rest and relaxation right now. Give yourself and your loved ones permission to simply breathe and be present in the moment. Your nervous system will thank you.

About the Author

Kimberly Garrison, PsyD, is the Clinical Director of The Collective Integrated Behavioral Health located in Denver, CO. The Collective is a multidisciplinary behavioral health practice that provides holistic therapy and psychiatry services to adults and young professionals. Dr. Garrison is a Licensed Psychologist in Clinical Psychology with a specialization in Health and is certified in Nutritional Psychology. Contact Dr. Garrison at Kimberly.garrison@collectivebh.com. For more information go to www.collectivebh.com.

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