The Psychological Cost of Repeated Emotional Beatdowns
What did your quarantine routine look like?
Was it the utopian model of health, balance, rest, productivity, creativity, and reconnection that you just knew you’d achieve once all the obstacles of a life external were removed from your path?
You know, traffic, errands, social dates, events, office time, gym obligations, etc.
We’ve discussed at length the collective trauma response we’re all experiencing, and why our homebound lives didn’t feel like the “staycations” we imagined they would be.
Unsurprisingly, we’re not firing on all cylinders when we’re experiencing trauma.
But there’s another facet to that train of thought that psychologists studied in response to the COVID-19 crisis: allostatic load.
First given a name in 1993, it’s likely you haven’t heard the term.
Allostatic load refers to the body’s response to repeated hits of stress and agitation.
Just like we feel repeated hits of dopamine when we post a new picture on social media and it gets tons of reactions, each blow to the nervous system compounds and stacks resulting in…
You guessed it — fatigue.
Bewitched, Body and Soul
As we’ve long understood, the body and the mind are connected. Stress can cause sleeplessness. Sleeplessness can cause gut issues. Gut issues can cause depression. And on and on.
When the mind experiences prolonged and repeated exposure to stressful events — news headlines, reminders of our situation, even slipping on a mask to go outside, etc. — the body experiences a physiological response.
In short? The mental energy we spent trying to keep up with unfamiliar stressors, in nature or in quantity, actually exhausted us physically.
You see, allostasis refers to the way that the body uses homeostasis to temper physiological reactions in the body. A huge factor in maintaining that balance is predictability.
Society has been designed to stabilize inconsistencies and predict irregularity by removing it, for the most part.
Pre-coronavirus, we made plans.
We knew we’d be going on vacation with our families in July. We knew we’d be heading to the office in the morning, and which clothes were clean and available for use. We knew we’d be eating out a certain numbers of times per week, and had a good idea of where. We knew the weekend would bring soccer games, dinners out, tai chi in the park. We knew that the evening car ride would be accompanied by our favorite radio show.
We knew our jobs were safe (mostly). We knew when our income would arrive and where it would go.
We knew when we would next see our families and friends.
And then all of a sudden…
We just stopped knowing.
The human mind is a pattern-creating, meaning-making machine. When we can’t make plans, and patterns can’t be tracked, and none of this makes sense, our brains go into overdrive trying to organize and catalogue all of it.
We collectively worried for so much more of our days than we were before that it caused allostatic load.
We were doing less, and we were even less able to do it.
Not only that, but the previous palliative — seeing other people — that used to tell the brain and the body “Hey, you’re not alone. Look at this network! Look at this hive!” had been severed from our reach.
And so our brains were dealing with a lack of human contact (turning that into danger and isolation), the absence of predictability, and an unending stream of bad news and stress.
There’s one more thing to note: We moved way less. Undeniably.
When that happens, coupled with the fatigue of draining our brain’s energy resources, we tend to build up fat around our muscles. Immune cells like to populate around excess tummy fat, which causes inflammation.
Inflammation makes you tired.
Could we have corrected allostatic load right then? Probably not completely.
Can we now mitigate its effects so that we can increase our resilience in the face of more uncertainty?
The hardest thing to do when you’re emotionally and physically exhausted is get up… But it’s the truest answer.
Think about how you can increase your body’s movement. Think about how you can control your daily stress-hit count. Think about how you can embed certainty into your routine.
Could you block news websites or social media from yourself for a number of hours in the day, or flood your feed with positive content, or give yourself a break at work by learning how to draw flowers instead of engaging in online political discourse?
Could you ensure that every Thursday night is new-cuisine night where everyone agrees to learn a new dish from a different culture, or schedule Mondays as black-and-white movie night, or look forward to your two hours of uninterrupted reading time Sunday morning?
Could you engage in quality time with family and friends on a regular, rotating basis, especially the ones you haven’t seen in ages — so that your brain and body remember you’re not alone?
Don’t forget — we’re all only going through this for the first time. Very few of us alive today have ever emerged from a year-long global shutdown.
Staying informed about what our bodies are doing is the first step to getting out of our own ways.
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