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No such thing as normal

I doubt there’s much about your life right now that is how it was three weeks or even a week ago. How are you feeling about it?

Maybe you're energised by the crisis and enjoying the challenge. In which case you probably don't need to read the rest of this. You might be experiencing moments of joy, calm, love, peace, happiness - great, enjoy those moments, they're precious.

Let me tell you that if you are frightened, despairing, angry, frustrated, stressed, confused or anxious right now then that is entirely understandable and indeed normal. If you’re not experiencing some of that I would be more concerned.

  • It is not normal to have to do a version of your day job from a corner of your bedroom or a cupboard under the stairs whilst also homeschooling and otherwise occupying your children

  • It is not normal for all your work to disappear overnight and leave you wondering how you might pay your mortgage and bills next month

  • It is not normal to live with an undercurrent of fear for the health of yourself and your family

  • It is not normal to be confined to your home for an unknown time period

  • It is not normal to be cut off from seeing friends and loved ones

  • It is not normal to have to cancel everything you were looking forward to in the next couple of months

None of this is normal. And your brain will be doing it’s best to deal with all of that not normal but it’s got some challenges in doing that.

The biggest challenge is that it has very limited response mechanisms available when it is threat response which is what is happening right now. Your threat response is handled by an ancient part of your brain called the amygdala which is the home of fight or flight. These are your fundamental survival modes – run away or fight your way out of the situation. Because the amygdala’s purpose is to keep you safe from threat but it can’t tell the difference between the traditional threat of mountain lion and the more modern day ‘threat’ which is often more about ego damage than physical damage.

In normal times you might notice your amygdala firing when someone asks you to speak in front of a group or when someone disagrees with you in a meeting – not a threat to your physical survival but quite possibly a threat to your ego. Your amygdala can’t tell the difference and leaps to your aid with a fight or flight response – your breath quickens, blood starts rushing to your muscles, adrenaline and cortisol are released to help you fight hard and run faster. These are enormously helpful responses if you were indeed faced by a mountain lion but when faced with that presentation or a disagreement rather less useful.

So, when we’re frightened the amygdala is in charge and right now in these not normal times whether you are conscious of it or not there will be a lot of fear going on. And fight or flight is not very useful to us when we’re being asked to stay home and continue as normal. Fear is not a good basis for good decision making or problem solving or rational thinking.

What can you do about it? Actually lots.

Firstly find some time to breathe – square breathing is a great tool for calming everything down. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold the breath for 4, breathe out through your mouth for a count of 4, hold the emptiness for 4.

Find time in your day to do something physical – if your body is primed for fighting or running then physical activity is a good way to disperse some of those chemicals and calm everything down again. Walk, run, dance, skip, jump.

Look after yourself physically. When we are in fight or flight our bodies crave fat and sugar to support that. I have the most terrible creme egg obsession right now! Balance that out with good healthy choices, lots of fruit and vegetables and plenty of water.

Stay connected. We may be on lockdown but we have access to everything and everyone virtually. Use it. You don’t need to be alone or lonely.

Equally it might help to disconnect. Don’t watch or listen to all the news. And if you have a house full of children and family members maybe find some quiet space for a few minutes each day. Breathe.

Lastly, remember that this is not normal. There is no map. Whatever you are feeling or experiencing is simply that, your feelings and experiences. And if you’re anything like me right now, if you wait an hour you’ll be feeling something else. Don’t fight how you’re feeling, it’s OK to feel all that. And you can take some small steps to manage it. There is no such thing as normal right now but there will be a new normal and you get to create that.

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