One day, when my youngest child was barely two, he got out the front door of our house and took off toward a busy street.
By the time I saw him, he was two-thirds of the way there, and even running my hardest, I knew I couldn’t reach him before he got to the intersection. My husband, Ben, heard me yelling and bolted from his place on the couch, and while he was faster than me, it still looked like he wouldn’t get there in time.
Thankfully, there was a landscape worker who happened to be close by and reached our son first, stopping him right in front of traffic.
As we were walking home with our child in our arms, crying and laughing and shaking, we eventually looked down and realized my husband’s feet were bleeding. He had run so hard and fast that he had torn the skin on the soles of his feet.
This is the potency of the human stress response.
Most people are familiar with the ordinary miracle of fight-or-flight: in an emergency, our mind-body system is able to flick on this response and begin acting in milliseconds before our conscious mind is even aware of what’s happening.
That day on the couch, Ben heard the alarm in my voice, and it triggered a series of hormonal responses that allowed him to move, muscle, and maneuver in ways he wouldn’t normally be capable of.
His senses were temporarily sharpened, his heart rate and blood pressure escalated, his lung capacity increased, his pain perception decreased, and blood surged to his extremities, giving him the jolt he needed to run so hard his feet bled while he didn’t notice.
We were able to relax that evening after bringing our two-year-old safely home. We ordered pizza and watched a movie and held our kids extra close. Our nervous systems were allowed to reset—to reestablish equilibrium.
But what if they hadn’t?
What if we had continued to perceive danger for hours, days, weeks, or months on end?
Which brings us to our present moment in time.
The effects of the fight-or-flight response are precisely what is required in short-term emergencies, like my son running toward the street.
But when the perception of danger persists, a lower-level stress response continues in the body until the threat is resolved and there is no longer the risk of immediate harm.
While we as a human collective have not been sprinting barefoot on pavement for 12 months straight, our nervous systems have been skillfully perceiving and responding to a very real and persistent threat to our survival: COVID-19.
For the past year or more, our body’s energy and resources have been consumed with staying safe and protecting the health of those we love. We’ve been in an ongoing state of hypervigilance—a feeling of always being “on.”
Meanwhile, our more longitudinal systems of digestion, reproduction, restoration, and repair, have likely been on the back burner and suffering for it.
To put it simply, we’re all out of whack.
This out of whack-ness that comes from long-term stress doesn’t look like sprinting down the street. Chronic stress can look more like laying on the couch and not getting the mail for days.
In fact, if you were unaware of the nervous system and how it works, you might see someone suffering from this kind of burnout and think they were lazy, disinterested, crabby, or spacey. You might even diagnose them with “pandemic fatigue,” which not surprisingly has the same checklist of physical and emotional symptoms as chronic stress.
Have a look at this list of chronic stress symptoms and see if you can relate:
1. Apathy: you Just. Don’t. Care.
When not catching a deadly virus has been the primary concern for your mind and body for 12 months straight, the little things that used to matter just don’t seem important anymore. I used to care about the bathroom being clean, for example…
2. Subpar Mental Functioning: you can’t think of the word…
Brain fog, trouble recalling information, and fumbling for words. You’re not imagining it. Your thinking brain has moved to the back burner to make way for the more primitive stress response. In your system, right now, staying healthy is more important than composing emails, taking tests, or even being able to speak coherently.
3. Exhaustion: but I’ve been sleeping so much!
There’s the obvious factor that many of us have literally been confined to our homes for a year, and that just gets to feeling droopy after a while. But there is also the third part of the fight-or-flight response: freeze. If our nervous system determines an inability to outpower or outrun the source of harm (i.e., COVID-19), the alternative is to freeze in place.
4. Irritability: you feel like you’re about to snap.
Remember when the pandemic care trucks were coming around, delivering food and household necessities, doing our laundry, paying our bills, and helping care for our children so we could focus on staying home and healthy? Yeah, me neither. The fact that our obligations and standards for productivity have remained the same despite our much lower mental, emotional, and many times financial resources would lead any normal person to be cranky. Add to that too much togetherness, too much alone time, and the uncertainty of when and how this will resolve—it’s completely understandable to feel like slapping people in the face.
5. Depression: you just feel sad and lonely.
Chronic stress can look and feel a lot like depression. Sleeping more, apathy, losing interest in things you used to enjoy, and the dragging on of day-to-day that we’ve experienced for the past year can contribute to feelings of sadness and loneliness. It may be depression. It may also be the effects of chronic stress. It could even be both.
6. Weight Gain: your body has changed shape or size.
Being stressed uses energy. And in order to replenish that energy, we get more food cravings, especially for sugary foods that will give us a quick energy burst. At the same time, a mind-body system in a chronically stressed state is holding on and storing up calories and fat, like a bear trying to survive a long winter. The takeaway: if you’ve put on weight during the pandemic, congrats. You have a normal nervous system.
7. Digestive Issues. Enough said.
Again, because digestion is not a system related to short-term survival, our nervous system automatically puts it on the back burner. In order for the digestive system to recalibrate, we need to set ourselves up to “rest and digest,” meaning shutting off the hypervigilant state of chronic stress. This would be great, but it’s super hard right now. Why? Because our nervous systems are doing their jobs.
8. Numbing Out: you’re medicating with food, alcohol, sex, shopping, and media.
Being in a hypervigilant, super-sensory state for a long time is exhausting. But it’s hard to turn our danger sensors off. Numbing out is a way of escaping the intensity of what’s going on, as well as avoiding strong or painful emotions around what is happening. So even though they may not be healthy, they are understandable.
9. Anxiety: you feel panicky leaving the house.
As we near the end of the pandemic, we’re beginning to see an increasing number of people who are anxious about reopening. Sure, it makes sense that we’ve been away from crowds for a long time and we’re used to avoiding other humans like a hot stove. But millions of Americans were stressed out before COVID-19, and the thought of returning to the run-yourself-ragged lifestyle produces anxiety. Add to that the incidents of gun violence we are already seeing, and this anxiety only makes sense.
10. Attention Problems: You can’t focus or get things done.
Our brains are set up to focus on one thing at a time. And what has that one thing been over the past year? Surviving pandemic. It goes straight to the top of the mind-body priority list, whether we like it or not. And it’s all-consuming. Would it make sense to attempt to prioritize studying or work over your primal brain’s wiring to keep you alive and healthy? Nope.
This is a pretty all-encompassing list, and if you’re like many people, you are likely to be experiencing several of these symptoms at once.
Let me assure you that there is nothing wrong with you if this is the case.
Our phenomenal systems of staying alive have been working 24/7 for months on end, and they’ve done a good job. After all, if you’re reading this, you’re still alive. But make no mistake, most of our nervous systems at this point are behaving like very tired, cranky mama bears.
As our society begins to open back up, the cries for normalcy and getting back on the horse will be loud and clear. But tread lightly. Your nervous system has been through a global pandemic, and reentry in a way that actually honors the trauma we’ve experienced is going to take time, patience, and compassionate understanding.