To Fight, Fly or Freeze is Human

I came across a Medium article the other day that felt very timely for me personally: Why You’re So Irritated at Everything (It’s Definitely Not You).

“Oh thank GOD,” I thought, reading that sub-title, “I’ve been seriously wondering what’s up with me lately!”

Photo by Evelyn

In a lot of ways, my day to day routine really hasn’t changed all that much during the pandemic. I still work full time (from home now), we are fortunate enough to have childcare during the week and while all of my social events and races have gone virtual, my weekends are still about as middling-busy as they have ever been. And yet, for some reason, I found myself feeling a definite decrease in motivation over the last week or so, along with noticeavly increased irritation and “snappiness.” I still meditate daily each morning and could see my mind and body feeling more restless day by day.

The article goes on to explain that this increasing irritability that many people are feeling lately is basically due to underlying anxiety. The current situation, with the pandemic looming over everything is causing an uptick in anxiety for many people and that is kicking our natural “fight, flight or freeze” circuits into high gear. Our bodies feel under threat and our natural systems can’t differentiate between a clear, immediate danger to our safety and the existential dread that many people are feeling lately. Our caveman brains react to the increasing stress by sending us signals to fight off what we can, run away or shrink and hide until the threat passes.

For my own part, I’ve been noticing a definite increase in the “fight” and/or “freeze” response in myself. I seem to want to either punch at everyone in the world or just lay in bed and do nothing.

It really hit me the other day after my morning meditation: my feelings of demotivation and irritability really had nothing to do with the pandemic at all, at least not directly. I had been searching my mind for some pandemic-related reason for my change in mood as if the only reason a person might be unhappy these days has to be due to the pandemic. The reality is that I’m about ten weeks into my “pandemic experience,” this change in mood was much more basic: it was stress plain and simple.

So, what’s a stressed out working mom to do? For my own sanity and the sanity of my family, I knew that I couldn’t just give in to my fight/flight/freeze circuits. Over just a few days, I could see myself turning into the Hulk: a calm Bruce Banner one minute and then suddenly raging over a dirty plate left on the kitchen table the next. For me, it starts with recognizing that what I’m experiencing is a normal response to the anxiety and stress; what I’m feeling is natural. I had to accept the situation I’m in and be kind to myself in the midst of my feelings. Accepting my situation does not mean condoning the situation. I can accept a stressful situation as real and still do what I can to change things for the better. My pattern runs a little something like this: I feel the anxiety, I lash out in frustration and irritation then I beat myself up for lashing out. Learning to be kind to myself and forgive myself is the first step for me.

Acceptance is a small word that can be very hard to do. For me, it takes practice and a lot of self-compassion; it means becoming my own best friend. We are all human, to be human is a complicated thing and we can give ourselves a bit of kindness when going through hard times. I know that I am able to treat others with kindness and compassion, it’s important for me to do the same for myself. If a friend came to me and shared that they were feeling irritable and unmotivated, I would do everything I could to encourage them and lift their spirits. It’s also important that we do the same thing for ourselves: be a friend to yourself. Tell yourself the same encouraging words you’d give your child or your best friend. Say them in your head, write them down… heck, say them out loud! Whatever helps for you to be able to hear yourself be your own friend.

I often see the small phrase “it’s okay to not be okay” float through my social media feeds and while sure, I like the sentiment, what does it truly mean to be “okay” with not being okay? The way I experience it, it means sitting in the fire of difficult emotions as they arise, trusting that they will eventually pass away. It means allowing yourself to actually not feel good for a while, allowing yourself to feel your anger or sadness or frustration for a bit with the confidence that it will pass eventually.

I know this can be a very scary thing. You might be afraid of the hard emotions you’re feeling, scared they will pull you down into a darkness that you can’t escape. But, in my experience, figuring out a way to feel your feelings and express them rather than push them away or pretend they don’t exist is so important. Your negative feelings won’t go away just because you ignore them. Your frustration and irritation are still somewhere in your psyche and if you can’t learn to express them somehow, they will come out eventually, usually when you don’t want them to.

This last week or so have been a hard for me. I know that I am fortunate in many ways: I have a job that I can do virtually, my family is healthy and safe and even the weather has been beautiful. That morning, after my meditation, I realized that my negative feelings lately have really nothing to do with the pandemic and are just part of being human. I had been going through more stress at work and with the kids so of course I was feeling stressed and my body was responding to that stress with my fight/flight/freeze response, sending me the signals that I needed a break and some relief. During the pandemic, we tend to look for “pandemic reasons” for every hard moment but ultimately it simply is stress or sadness or exhaustion, whatever the cause may be; what you’re feeling inside is normal and okay.

Give yourself a bit of space to feel your feelings and be a friend to yourself.

If you enjoy my blog, please consider buying me a virtual coffee through my ko-fi page here. I am a caffeine fueled writer!

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