We Interrupt This Non-Road Trip For: The Stress at the End of the Tunnel

Anyone else getting tired of hearing about the end of the tunnel? Tunnels are concrete structures, figuratively and literally. They have beginnings, middles, and very distinct ends. Are we seriously trying to compare COVID times with a tunnel?

(Image courtesy BY-NC-ND 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Right now, just as the graphs seem to be trending in the right direction, there suddenly seem to be even more unknowns. Can I get on an airplane now? Am I part of the problem for even wanting to? If everything’s getting better, why do I still feel dread? Why does optimism still get stuck somewhere between my throat and my stomach?

The other day I happened upon an “On Being” podcast about this EXACT frustration with the interminability of this time, and the effects of all that who-knows?ness on our mental state. I immediately thought about a bunch of different friends to send the link to.

But I don’t love it when people tell me I “should” listen to something nearly an hour long, even if I know I’d probably benefit. So instead, I’m excerpting that podcast for you here. I hope you can get something valuable from it, without having to spend a whole hour.

For starters, see if you can recognize something in this intro by host Krista Tippett:

The light at the end of the COVID tunnel is tenuously appearing, yet we feel as exhausted as at any time in the past year. Memory problems, short fuses, sudden drops into what feels frighteningly to me like depression, and fractured productivity that alternately puzzles and shames us.”

Any of that sound familiar? 

EXHAUSTED.

Krista then introduces her guest. Christine Runyan is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She also runs a clinical consulting practice, Tend Health, to support the mental well-being of health care providers.

Runyan, Krista says,

“explains how the very first news of the threat of a new virus in the world instantaneously activated our stress responses, sent our nervous systems into an overdrive from which they’ve never retreated. To use other words, the pandemic has disrupted our mind-body connection, which is always as sensitive to what is imagined as to what is real.”

Don’t know about you, but my own mind and body don’t need much reality to go galloping off in different directions. And this is a GLOBAL PANDEMIC.

As Runyan dives in, describing the classic fight-or-flight response, I note the metaphor she chooses:

“And that’s a very predictable response. It’s our source code as humans…And when that goes off, it does a number of things. It releases glucose, so we have some energy. It increases our heart rate. It increases our blood pressure. It diverts blood to our major muscle groups. It temporarily gives our immune system a little boost. It stops our digestion. It does all these things specifically…so that we can fight or that we can flight, and that we have all the reserve necessary to be able to do that.”

“Source code”? So it’s built in. So it’s not just me? So it’s not my fault if I can’t shake this gut-level dread?

Describing us in our balanced state, Runyan notes,

“And this window of tolerance, which does get quite disrupted…for people who’ve had prior trauma, that window really shrinks, and so you can activate this nervous system at lower levels. And that’s one of the things that I think has been happening throughout this whole year, for various reasons, both related to the virus and related to our social circumstances in this country.”

Uh-huh. Yeah. Go on.

Then Krista really captures the point:

“…here we are, a year on, and we never got to — the threat never went away. But what I’ve also experienced as I look back on the year and its many chapters, including the death of George Floyd, the racial reckoning and rupture, the drama of the election — it feels to me…like there was a lot of adrenalin that got generated at different points in the last year…and that’s just quite apart, again, from people having incredible losses and stresses in their lives and losing people and illness and jobs and all of that. But just — you kept going. There was this energy source.

And then it has felt like winter set in, the election was over — I feel like all of the energy flowed out of my body. [laughs] …it’s not just that I have felt low in energy, I’ve felt disembodied and like I’ll never be the same again.” 

And Runyan is on it, reassuring Krista (and the rest of us!):

“I think that’s also part of the nervous system, both assault and response. We talk about fight or flight, but there’s also a state of freeze, which can look very much like you’re describing — this state of apathy, of detachment, of even disembodied or dissociative, and numbing, a lot of numbing.” 

Numbing. Yes. Think back to all those terms we used to describe our days: “Shelter in place.” “Blursday.” “Quarantini.” Day after week after month. Even when we spoke of “silver linings” (telecommuting! wildlife roaming streets!) we still knew they involved a big ol’ cloud.

Krista really speaks my mind when she focuses on the physicality of our restrictions:

“You talk about, also, symptoms of this stress on our nervous system that I think I recognize in myself, and we all recognize, as being more impulsive, moody, rigid in our thinking, irritable, lashing out, our frustration tolerance — and you could almost see that play itself out in our political life. And so, collectively, we were faced with this impossible choice — that the very thing that makes us human, which is our physical connection to other people, was the cost of keeping each other safe.

Hugs! She’s talking about hugs! And smiles! Hell, even shaking hands has been taboo.

And she goes on,

“…naming this feels relieving, even though what we’re naming is a really just impossible and terrible situation we’ve all been placed in. So what do we know about…the effects on us as humans, as creatures, of what we’ve called social distancing…the lack of touch, the lack of seeing and being seen, in a world of masks?

Ooh, ooh, me! I know that one! We feel CRAPPY.

Runyan responds with pretty much my favorite response to any problem: naming it.

“So this process of naming and “allowing,” I think is the term that I would say — seeing it as a human response to the conditions that are, rather than something wrong with me — so many of us humans are prone to even ask that question, “What’s wrong with me?”

Yes. Sigh.

She goes on to remind us that the naming is just the first step in a process of self-gentleness:

“…I think the self-awareness piece, even before the allowing — we have to have some internal vision…and know that how it shows up for you is gonna be different than how it shows up for me; how it shows up for you, today, is gonna be different than how it may show up for you next week. So that awareness and the allowing…being curious. If we can be curious, just what’s going on inside of our own bodies — the neurotransmitter of curiosity is dopamine, so if we can be curious, we can give ourselves a little hit of dopamine. And then compassion, if I had to say the one thing that probably supersedes all of those, is compassion, including compassion for oneself.

I LOVE that bit about the dopamine! Did you know that? I didn’t. The compassion part? That I already knew, but sometimes compassion is hard to get to. But…drumroll…curiosity is the gateway to compassion! And you get dopamine as a choice of sides!

In the latter part of the podcast, after naming the stressors, Runyan moves on to dealing with them. She mentions well-known techniques, like listening to music, or surrounding yourself with your favorite calming scent.

Here’s mine. (image courtesy thowra_uk, Wikimedia Commons

She mentions breath–not, to my surprise, deep in-breaths so much as–well, this.

…There’s various techniques you can do with the breath, but if you’re gonna do one thing, a long exhale, because that’s part of our sympathetic nervous system, that dorsal part of our sympathetic nervous system that activates our calming — so, a long exhale.

(Which I suppose involves in-breaths by necessity, right?) And then comes one of my favorite parts:

“…And then, one of my common go-to’s is…“tend-and-befriend,” and particularly if I don’t have people around me, is to just make contact with myself. I put my hand on my heart, on my chest —

Tippett: Oh, you mean literally.

Runyan: Literally. [laughs]

Yes! A little self-caress. (I actually don’t even care if others are around. Self-care is self-care.)

My last big takeaway from this fascinating conversation was the reminder of how our pesky imagination, which likes to occupy itself by creating extra worries, can also summon its own comfort. Runyan asks Krista to imagine cutting open a lemon and tasting it. Krista does. So do I. (So, now, perhaps, do you.)

(Image courtesy Tim-Hoggarth, Wikimedia Commons)

Runyan: We can create a physiological response through our imagination, which is…a double edge. [laughs] It’s a gift and a curse, because that is worry.

Tippett: Right, but you’re saying we can also activate that to comfort ourselves, if we take it seriously enough.

Bingo. Although I’d really prefer imagining these.

Ahhhhh…the scent of summer.

Runyan then reminds us that part of healing that mind-body connection in times of stress is simply being kind to one’s body.

“I’ve had a lifelong struggle with my own body, and probably up until maybe about five years ago. And this reverence — now it is just a wonder and a source of curiosity, and I can appreciate it for all the ways it’s working on my behalf, even when I meet it with frustration.

Have I thanked my knees lately?

“And this is why, when I think about what are the superpowers that we all hold in us that is also part of our source code, it’s that self-awareness — is there a pause point to be able to step out of that automatic pilot and then be able to make an intentional choice?”

I sure would like there to be.

“There’s a quote that’s attributed to Viktor Frankl, and he says, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. And in that space lies our power to choose. And in our choice lies our growth and our freedom.” And it’s such a beautiful encapsulation, I think, of that self-awareness and that pause, which is so hard to do at this time, because we’re so activated. And so it’s just recognizing when we can pause and say, oh, that’s what that is.”

I think that’s going to be my new mantra–at least until the world is vaccinated. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”

But lest Dr. Runyan seem too saintly, she ends on a good reminder of why that self-gentleness comes in so handy:

“It’s really that power of the pause. It’s imperfect — there’s plenty of times where I have done that, paused, and then just went right back down the rabbit hole.” [laughs]

Yep. “Oh, so that’s what that is.”

In case you were wondering, the Non-Road Trip series will return next time, at least for one more installment. But I think I heard that end-of-the-tunnel phrase just once too often this week. So that’s what this is.