These last couple of weeks I found that I own a pair of Fuck-It pants.
This discovery came as a bit of a surprise, because presumably like you and pretty much everyone else in the world who suddenly found the world had irrevocably changed, I had spent the first week of lockdown feeling really fearful about what the post-Covid-19 future might look like.
There was a time in those first few days when I wondered if there would even be a future.
It seemed like one moment it was gin o’clock and then, in the next moment, Armageddon had arrived, coming at full tilt and howling like a banshee.
There is absolutely no doubt that the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic will be of a biblical scale. The human cost may be quantifiable, but when the final reckoning is done, it’s likely to prove conceptually unimaginable.
This is shit of the seriously serious kind, and I will never be able to truly accept or be untainted by the sheer scale of loss of life that we have seen and will continue to see for many more weeks to come.
Yet I have found a wierd kind of peace with its impact on me, whatever that turns out to be in the end. This week, I reached the point where I stopped running from what I feared, thought ‘Fuck it’, and chose to turn and fight instead.
By that I mean the impact on everything I’ve built over the past 18 years. There are many owners of businesses like mine who are staring into an abyss and don’t know if they’ll survive this period. I’ve come to the realisation that no matter what’s around the corner, I’m not going to let everything I’ve worked for be destroyed by a sneeze or cough.
Part of that is down to habituation. In psychological terms habituation is what happens when you’re exposed to a particular stimulus – in this case fear – for such a prolonged period that your emotional response to it diminishes. We’ll come back to this in a bit.
But mostly I think it’s down to the fact that fighting is the way I’m genetically hardwired to respond to trauma. I grew up in a house of Dynasty levels of drama (minus the cash), and so it’s probably inevitable that once I’d recovered from the initial shock of what Covid-19 might mean for me, my go-to response kicked in.
Regardless of how Covid-19 has affected you or will affect you personally, the reality right now is that we’re all currently experiencing a shared mass trauma event. To some extent, we could argue the entire world has complex PTSD right now.
Whether you’re considered vulnerable, are unable to work, have lost someone close to you, fear contracting the disease or are simply working from home and unable to travel, every one of us has been uniquely touched by the events of the past few weeks.
And the nature of trauma and the way the subconscious is configured means we each deal with it in one or more of four ways (it’s not uncommon to go through all of them – sometimes in the space of a single day – although usually there’s one response reflex that’s dominant).
Let’s start in the land of the Fuck-It pants.
If you’ve ever seen the film Network, this is the response which might have you yelling at the world: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” And if you haven’t seen the movie, now might be the perfect time to give it a go.
The fight response meets fear or trauma with fierce resolve and the realisation – either conscious or otherwise – that for you, standing your ground and facing the enemy is better than running from it, whatever the outcome.
The fight response is the province of the renegade. Those who are likely to opt for this approach to dealing with trauma are those who will have looked at all the possible outcomes and consequences of going in swinging (not literally, of course!) and decided they can live with and survive all of them.
In essence, this reaction to trauma is the one whose mantra is ‘if you’re going down, go down fighting’.
The fight response sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. There’s little point in fighting if it’s only going to cause more damage than the threat you face.
As with all responses they can also get out of balance and put you into a negative loop that sees you fighting long after the battle is over, which is inevitably exhausting for both you and everyone around you.
Flight is what we’ve seen from most people in the opening weeks of this situation and it’s hallmarked by a sense of panic. Flight is a common trauma response because the subconscious is programmed to protect you at all costs and running from danger is a primal reflex.
Even those who ultimately and rapidly respond to fear, trauma and danger by fighting will usually experience and manifest flight as their default first reaction.
The primary characteristic of flight in the context of coronavirus and social distancing, and all that that potentially entails for individual personal and financial security, is to try to cover off every eventuality.
Those who opt for flight will be those who, if nothing else, now have sufficient toilet roll and pasta to last into the next millennium. They will have been in touch with their mortgage lender to arrange a payment holiday, cancelled every possible direct debit or standing order that isn’t entirely essential and will be scrupulously meticulous around personal hygiene.
Stockpiling hand sanitiser aside, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the flight response in principle. As I say, it’s designed to keep you safe. But it’s unsustainable in the long-term without causing additional mental health issues.
Unchecked, the flight road often leads to chronic anxiety, negative generalised behaviour and OCD – especially if you already had creeping obsessions with hygiene and financial security prior.
When we initially experience shock, we ‘freeze’: our systems shut down and we disassociate. This is due to things being simply ‘too much’
We are the rabbits in the road, dazzled by headlights yet powerless or without the capacity to acknowledge or appreciate the one and a half tonnes of danger bearing down of us in a roar of engines and the hiss of rolling rubber.
For the rabbit, flight is obviously the best response – preferably via a hedgerow rather than an attempt to outrun the car; but rather than running or standing their ground to meet fire with fire. Freezing is actually an entirely natural autonomic nervous response to danger, but it’s when get ‘stuck’ in freeze as a life-trance is when it becomes an issue.
Disassociation can and often does work, but only through luck or when the perceived danger fails to materialise.
We are currently working with a lot of clients to help move them out of the freeze trauma response to the coronavirus.
The final response to trauma is to fawn – which is when we go into automatic people-pleasing mode, twisting and contorting ourselves in all sorts of different and accommodating shapes in order to find try to deflect the confrontation or danger we face.
Those who respond to fear or danger by fawning are likely to be unable to say no easily and may have difficulty expressing how they feel. Often, fawners struggle with their self-esteem and are driven by the belief that admission to a ‘community’ is more important than looking after their own emotional needs.
For Covid-19 this response doesn’t work too well, since the danger is not one that can be avoided through passivity or becoming a people-pleasing pretzel that doesn’t serve you.
What’s your window of tolerance?
Each of these trauma responses are valid and entirely natural in and of their own right, we all move through them, often several times a day, the problem is when we get ‘stuck’ in ‘on’: fight or flight or fawn, or ‘stuck’ in ‘off’ freeze. So where then, do we want to be? Well as we manage our way through this pandemic, we should ideally be working to find our ‘window of tolerance’ – the place where you can take refuge and comfort in the knowledge that you’re going to be okay.
Is that easy to do? Well generally, no. It depends on how financially secure you are already, how much support you have emotionally and practically and how good you were at staying within your window of tolerance before the coronavirus hit.
It’s easy to find and stay in your window of tolerance if you’re in some kind of Kardsahian-style lockdown in a mansion with bottomless financial resources and nothing to do but bake and Tik-Tok your existence for the benefit of a world that’s permanently glued to Instagram.
Alone in a damp studio flat and living off dwindling credit card limits when you were already isolated to within an inch of your sanity? Not so much.
Ditto those whose backdrop for lockdown is an abusive relationship. Or an elderly person with serious health issues. Or someone who was already battling the unholy trinity of anxiety, depression and insomnia.
All the trauma responses are normal, but at times some can be more helpful than others.
The goal is here to recognise which, if any, of the trauma responses you’re in and from there work to get back into your window of tolerance.
Fight: Stop threatening to drop-kick traffic wardens or a partner whose mere breathing is sending you into an incandescent rage. Take time out and breathe.
Flight: Stop inhaling bad news, take a breath and soothe your nervous system
Freeze: Get up and do something that is good for you. Reconnect with yourself. Nature is great for this.
Fawn: Stop looking after everyone else and put yourself first by getting some support.
More than ever, we all need to find our window of tolerance – that place where we feel adult, reasonable and sane – and support ourselves through our actions, behaviours and self-talk so we can stay in that window as much as we can.
By doing that, we can get through this and help others too.
Whatever your response to the corona virus. Know that you do have a ‘window of tolerance’, that it’s possible to get back to, no matter how far away it might feel right now, and it’s possible to expand and it’s possible to wait until you are back in your window of tolerance to make decisions that you just can’t make (when you are in flight mode), that just aren’t good to make (when you are in fight mode), that aren’t your own to make (when you are in fawn mode) and that you just can’t be arsed to make (when you are in freeze mode). It’s OK to not know right now, it’s OK to be a confused mess right now, what isn’t OK is to give yourself a hard time about any of it right now.
We become strong by recognising which of the ‘four horsemen of trauma states’ we are currently in & coaxing, coaching & supporting ourselves back into our window of tolerance and this, my friends, is where the magic happens.
Whilst the current restrictions are in place, we have moved our treatments online. Zoe Clews & Associates is a leading provider of online therapy in the UK and we are able to continue to treat most issues and conditions as normal through virtual sessions held via Skype.
If you’d like to talk to us about any of the issues covered in this blog, or about any other problem or concern you may have, please get in touch via our contact page. Your call will be treated in utmost confidence and we do not charge for telephone inquiries about our service.