For the past few weeks, and increasingly over the past few days, Mary Ellen* hasn’t been able to get much work done. She’s been irritable, edgy, and has a growing sense of panic. She can’t seem to focus — her mind is racing in ways that are uncomfortable. And the more she thinks about her lack of focus, the more anxious she gets.

The last few days have been even worse. She’s been working from home, and her kids now have school closures. Her husband has been distant, not pitching in as much as she’d like — the house is feeling suffocating and in disarray. Her teenager is off in his room and only barks at her when she asks him about the school virtual learning program. And her younger child is bouncing off the walls, pestering everyone else to play with her.

She feels overwhelmed and ends up lashing out at her husband, her children, and even her administrative assistant. She keeps trying to gain composure, but it’s not working. She needs less conflict in her life right now, but it seems to be snowballing out of control, even when nobody in her family is actually sick. What’s going on??

Increasingly, our lives have been upended due to COVID-19. It pervades our news, it has affected our work and school schedules, and it has kept us home from activities that we enjoy. We find ourselves stuck and afraid.

The fear is supposed to be only about COVID-19, though. It shouldn’t affect the rest of our days, our interpersonal relationships, or how we perceive our work, right? The question really boils down to this: can our minds properly handle the threat?

The answer, as any social psychologist will know, is: absolutely not. The human brain acts differently, under different conditions. Specifically: when our minds are at peace, we can process information and make decisions using our “upper-brains”, which is where our advanced, moral decisions lay. When we feel an existential threat, as we do now, our brains process information in the mid- and lower-brain, which leads to fight/flight/freeze.

What this means is that in times of extraordinary stress and concern — like when we are physically pushed to stay home, when we see anyone else as a potential threat to our very existence — we are quick to attack. Our advanced decision-making processes and sensitivity to others is especially suppressed. We feel tension in our bodies, and cortisol — a vital but dangerous stress hormone — is on constant-drip into our bloodstream.

The problem is in our evolution. Our minds are specifically designed to act in certain ways by evolving through millennia of survival. When we face a threat, we instinctively know what to do: fight/flee/freeze. These instincts take over our entire being — so we can’t think or process anything else. But what is happening now is not the type of threat where these instincts are helpful. There is nowhere to flee, no one to fight. And the threat is constant, not a quick-fix, so our minds are now chronically on extra-stress-mode. We can’t focus, we can’t innovate, and we can’t be as supportive or loving of others, when we feel this level of uncertainty.

So what can Mary Ellen do about it? Here are are some suggestions:

  1. Practice Mindfulness There are many mindfulness practices — not just meditation — that can help shift awareness away from the news and beyond the four walls of your house. These practices push the brain to activate more front-based thinking and also alleviate the release of stress hormones.
  2. Address Feelings Consider what you are actually feeling about triggers and why. Do a body-scan to see where tension is lying. Mentally release those tensions, to get a better sense of body-mind equilibrium.
  3. Forgive Everyone The situation is stressful for everyone — adults and children alike. When your son is moody, you can choose to internally forgive him. When your husband is distant, consider a gentle touch on his shoulder, to remind him that you care. And most importantly: forgive yourself for your own scattered feelings and compromised productivity.
  4. Embrace “Doing My Best” The key to these difficult times is to do the best you can and withhold harsh judgment. The extra layer of judgment can lead to further anxiety and depression. That, in turn, compromises the very immune system that you need, in order to be physically strong, in case you contract the disease.
  5. Take on “Mindless” Physical Projects You may need a physical release for the anxious hormones racing in your body. Look around for physical projects that you can do around your house that don’t require much higher-thought. Cleaning, organizing, sifting through accumulation can all feel therapeutic and release the physical tension.
  6. Get Some Exercise There’s lots of data to support how exercise staves off anxiety and depression. And luckily, there’s plenty of exercise routines available on the internet — many completely free, easy to do, and uplifting both mind and spirit. Carve out time to find something you may enjoy. Even 5–10 minutes/day can have a massive impact on your overall well-being.
  7. Read and Engage in “Feel Good” Things Now may not be the right time to read that thriller novel or check the news hourly. Look for uplifting music to listen to, comic videos, or articles about well-being. When you fill your mind and spirit with positive energy, it will mitigate the stress that you are otherwise facing.

Mary Ellen may not be able to take on all of these steps every day. And that’s ok too. The key is to remind herself of the basic principles, understand that she can’t control if her mid- and lower-brain is being triggered, and allow for imperfection.

The path to getting past this heightened-alert situation may be long and jagged. Our minds and spirits don’t like that uncertainty, and we may unintentionally lash out at the wrong person — or in the wrong way — since our minds are simply in fight/flight/freeze mode. The more Mary Ellen (and the rest of us!) acknowledge that, the better off we all will be.

*fictive character

Kira Nurieli is a certified mediator, conflict coach, workshop facilitator and consultant. She helps clients create breakthroughs in their workplace, classroom, family, and community dynamics.

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