Why can’t I get my ass in gear? Living through the year 2020.
If you’re from Canada, you’ve probably used or heard this phrase a time or two, “get your ass in gear”; meaning get going, get busy, get motivated, get out of bed and so on. Now, most likely if you are from Canada and you’ve heard it, it’s been articulated with arse and not ass, but I digress.
Let’s face it, 2020 has not been a stellar year and every day I see firsthand the social, psychological and even biological impact this year has had on individuals and society. My clients have felt it, my family has felt it, my friends have felt it, I am a Psychotherapist helping people through it, understanding the psychological effects and I’ve most certainly felt it. Scour social media and see how many people comment on the effects that this pandemic and 2020 as a whole has had, or listen to conversations with friends and family. New clients come into my office feeling bewildered because they never experienced disordered anxiety or depression before now; current clients speak of feeling constantly on edge, waiting for the shoe to drop so to speak, not being able to focus, concentrate, attend, being easily distracted, and having little to no motivation; previous clients have called to come back because although strategies they learned in therapy had helped them for a long period of time “suddenly” they can’t use them anymore. I can’t count the number of times in the past 5 months that I have heard, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I can’t get my ass in gear”. People who couldn’t sit still before can’t get going now and the whole world feels upside down. Well…that’s because it is, life as we knew it, our equilibrium has been completely shaken. Let me try to explain.
As human beings we process our world based on a number of factors; core beliefs, made up of past events and experiences, upbringing, culture, etc. that determine the lens through which we view our world, ourselves, and others; what we learn and what we know; what makes sense to us and what keeps us safe, which often includes having a sense of control. The stress response mechanism in our brain is designed in a way that when we are in danger, the processing part shuts down and the body takes over to protect us. When our brain perceives danger a signal is sent to the part that increases arousal, the amygdala, which has us on high alert and sends adrenaline and stress hormones throughout our body to get it in gear, protection mode, all systems go! Did you notice I mentioned “perceives danger”, we don’t always have to be in direct impact of danger, it can be what we perceive to be dangerous. That is why definitions of trauma and anxiety have been reworked and used to fit the situation while keeping a general consensus. The hippocampus in our brain creates, stores, and retrieves memories and is impacted in trauma, in the sense that it can shrink, causing memories to be “floating around”, called fragmented memories. This means that we have triggers, and we try to avoid the triggers, thus not processing it to memory, or in some situations we try to have control, so we become hyper focused and hyper vigilant. When a trigger arises, the hippocampus remembers facts and says, “here we go again, the danger is still happening” and it sends a signal to hyper-arousal amygdala again. We also have a window of tolerance and when overwhelmed we can go above it and become hyper-aroused or below and become hypo-aroused. So, think about this, a general definition of trauma implies living through a distressing event in which our sense of safety and control has been removed, often leaving feelings of helplessness, fear, and powerlessness. Vicarious and secondary trauma can happen when it is not directly impacting you, but you are hearing about it or reading about it, sometimes constantly. A general definition of anxiety implies fears of the unknown, uncertainty, not having control, and that perception of something bad lurking. I want you to think about the year 2020; we have been living the general definitions of anxiety and trauma on a daily basis for months and that’s just with Covid-19 itself, the differing messages we are receiving on what’s best to do and the lack of control we are experiencing with government restrictions. Throw in isolation, leading to lack of social connections that are needed to increase oxytocin in the brain; feeling like we’ve had little purpose or things to look forward to, two things which can increase serotonin; having the celebrations and achievements which triggers dopamine, and activities which release endorphins shut down. These four chemicals and mechanisms I just mentioned help with mood, motivation, and the mental health we aim for. Now while all of this is happening, let’s throw in protests which turned violent, the U.S. Election, which has brought up so much negativity and strong opinions, no matter what side you are with, possible conspiracies and being told to believe this way or that way and shamed if you choose to believe what makes sense to you or frankly, just want you want to believe. We have numbers of cases and deaths and projections thrown at us, the media increases fear with headlines, such as, “Ontario has a spike of 800 cases in one day; exceeding the highest number in April”, and then when you read further the ratio of number of tests taken to positive cases was less that day then it was in the spring but the headline only accentuates the high number on that date and many people don’t read past the headlines. So much information thrown at us, so much scary, negative information thrown at us while feeling isolated from our supports, possibly struggling financially as well, fearing the unknown and surrounded by uncertainty of what to do, what is to come, and triggered by already experiencing a difficult time in the last lockdown while hearing messages of another one looming, reading about and seeing video and pictures of or hearing about death and violence and ridicule and injustices…what a perfect storm for trauma and anxiety. Still wondering why you can’t get your ass in gear?
I’m not saying things are not serious, that Covid-19 is not a real danger or that it is; I will never tell anyone what to think or believe and in the type of therapeutic approach I use, we talk a lot about the facts. To lower anxiety, check the facts in stories, and look at stats on public health sites not just the headlines from the media, filter the information you are taking in, or take breaks from it, do what you feel you need to keep yourself and others safe – physically and mentally which can include wearing a mask around others, and washing your hands/using hand sanitizer. I get it, wearing a mask is not pleasant, there isn’t 100% proof it makes a difference, and everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, I’m with you on that. You can choose what path you want to take, for me, I think about what I said about trauma and anxiety and perception; what if wearing a mask is the difference between someone else having a significant anxious response or feeling safe for the time I run into a store or can’t maintain distance. I don’t know if they are 100% effective, I have many different beliefs but I can tell you that wearing a mask in my dad’s house makes him feel more comfortable and safe and what if wearing a mask IS the difference between me spreading something to my almost 80 year old father with a lung condition or not, am I willing to risk his health, life, or fear because of differing information? With this respect, we can be more understanding that we are all fighting a battle and the reason finding a concrete definition of trauma is difficult is because what one person might find traumatic, another doesn’t. If we all keep this in mind, whether you believe Covid-19 is fake news or something very scary, just by creating some understanding on the effects of the past few months on people and treating others like you don’t know what they are fighting inside, perhaps we can get through this a little less mentally and emotionally exhausted.
Okay so, the above was to try to help you understand why you may be feeling the way you are, I’m not saying you have anxiety disorder or PTSD, but this is how our brains work and information can provide us a better understanding of ourselves and others. Now, my advice…stick to the facts and limit the negative information you are taking in, try to get outside and move while the weather is nice or inside if you so choose, set a routine whether you are working from home or life has changed, get up, get ready like you are going to work, try to achieve one responsibility and one pleasurable activity a day, and socialize safely when you can. Set mini goals that are achievable, meaning if you want to start exercising or being more active don’t aim for 5 or 7 days a week right away, that sets you up for failure when you’re already feeling defeated. Aim for what you know you can do and if that is 1 day, perfect, doing more than that is a bonus and when you do that 1 day you trigger dopamine because you achieved (as well as serotonin and endorphins – dopamine will help you get motivated). Focus on the things you can control when life feels so out of control.
The year 2020 is one for the books and one I don’t want to repeat and we’re not quite finished with it yet; however, I learned so much about others and myself. I learned that we can be resilient, that we can live simply if we have to, that spending time with those we love and care for is so precious and we take so much for granted. I saw many families doing things together and kids playing outside again and being creative. I saw people helping each other out when someone was in need, and I learned that if I ever do my PhD, the year 2020 will be a great topic for a social experiment thesis.
I think one of the most profound things I learned was this. It’s not news to me that I’m a high achiever, I set high expectations for myself in most areas of my life and one area is my ability to work through things and to handle things, and I learned that being a Psychotherapist during a pandemic is hard; going through the same thing you are trying to help others through is very surreal and self-care is imperative. Another thing that is not news to me but that I personally have learned about myself is that I not only spend a great deal of time professionally helping others but I also spend most of my personal time taking care of others and normally that’s cool, it’s who I am; however, this year has been overwhelming and I learned that sometimes I need a break, I need to just focus on myself. If that means days to myself to do nothing, not talking or listening, creating new ideas for my business and working on getting things caught up, I’m going to do what I want to do, not what I have to do. I know that this is not the norm for me and it can cause some worry to those that are closest to me. My self-care is usually surrounding myself with friends and family and I know there is worry that I’m isolating, that I’m withdrawing and I want to assure those that are worried that I am fine, and please understand that when you have been navigating and experiencing this upside down world we are in, I have been too, all of it, while making decisions that not only impact me but the livelihood, health and wellbeing of my staff and many clients, a responsibility that I don’t take lightly, listening to how it has impacted those I care about, bringing people up while experiencing the weight myself, and while putting all of my own thoughts, fears, frustrations aside to help others through it. This is what I signed up for professionally and I love what I do, I love my life, I adore my family and friends, I love my business, and I love helping others, it is my passion. These are unprecedented times, and I have to remember that I am human, and sometimes I just need time to be, and it’s nothing more than that.
So with that, I say… it’s been a hard year, we have been living the definitions of anxiety, depression and trauma for 8 months so cut yourself some slack, cut others some slack, be kind to yourself, be kind to others, take care of yourself, understand the pressure your brain has been under, one foot in front of the other, step by step you’ll get there and that is when… you’ll be able to get your ass in gear.