JENNY R. SUSSER, PH.D.

POWER & PERFORMANCE SPORT PSYCHOLOGY SERVICES

How to handle the storm

Posted by on Mar 18, 2020

Three nights ago, I got a text message from a family member at 10 pm. Already on high alert, I read it, something I don’t normally do that late. But these are not normal times. It was one of the spam texts going around about how the world was going to end tomorrow but sounded so convincing. I was just at the point of falling asleep, so being jolted awake, both physically and psychologically, was a shock. I paused, replied about us all needing to be careful and mindful, and took a while to go back to sleep. I woke up agitated. I knew it was spam but was still completely disrupted by the fear mongering. Being a planner, I had a plan (that’s what took me a while to go back to sleep, making my plan). I went out to help with the morning barn duties because one of our winter staff was from Canada and had made the wise decision to get home as soon as possible. I was not right though, edgy, irritated, elevated, and upset. Even though it was obvious, I wasn’t seeing it so obviously. I kept telling myself I had a plan and that as soon as I went to the store, filled the gas cans, and met with our staff, it would all be okay. But that wasn’t how it went. I am ashamed to admit this but as I was leaning over to put bell boots on a horse’s feet, he nuzzled my back. Now, he is an infamous nibbler so often a nuzzle will lead to a little nip or even a big nibble, but I yelled at him in a complete, mindless reaction. He went backwards and looked at me as if to say, “Really? Was that really necessary?” Thankfully, horses are incredibly forgiving, and he moved on to his favorite game of I will eat the halter so you can’t put it on my face. His playfulness moved me into a little laugh, making me breathe, and allowing me to recover my fleeing mind. This took less than a minute and left me feeling exhausted, though. The wonderful young woman who works for us asked if I was okay and offered to help. Her generosity moved me back to center and I told her what I was so stressed about. She nodded and listened and then said, “Well, you are the master of preparation, what should we do?” Smiling and head shaking in gratitude, we finished the morning routine and I went to execute my plan.

Take a deep breath. Now take another one. Go ahead, pause and breath. Do you feel even a tiny bit better? You should. If you don’t, then do it until you do. Breathing is the gateway drug to relaxation, calm, recovery, and restoration. (Note: I’m going to repeat myself in these posts a bunch.) When we breathe deeply, it does a few things. One, it sends more oxygen to the entire body and as you know, oxygen is literally the elixir for life. Two, it sends blood back to the brain, the Prefrontal Lobe to be specific, and this is important because that is the part of the brain that “thinks,” it is our executive function and decision-making area, so you need blood there! And three, it gives you a new focus point, helping you recover from the stressful or fearful thought making you hold your breath. You want to get really good at breathing right now, it is incredibly effective, as well as cheap and easy!

We are in the midst of an incredible storm, a storm none of us has experienced before and so we are lost and afraid. A “global pandemic” is something we have only seen in a movie or read about in a book. I was thinking about what kinds of things we experience globally to compare to, but it is not really clear. The Olympics is a global event but doesn’t really impact everyone. A natural disaster can be felt all around the world but again, it impacts us mentally or even emotionally, but at a distance. And while this is global, the personal and immediate impacts we are feeling are the most important.

You are in survival mode. I am in survival mode. We all are in survival mode. What does this mean? This means our brain and body have switched into a state of preservation and survival and that has incredible consequences for us. Now, some of our survival responses are excellent and necessary and you want them around. But over time, it has a great cost energetically and psychologically. We all need to find a way to balance and offset the incredible stress and fear so we can stay as healthy and aware as possible. Now, in an emergency or pandemic situation, balance is NOT normal, so please don’t think this is some positive thinking suggestion to wish it away. We all need to up our awareness, add some skills, shore up our mental and emotional resources, and find a new balance during this time.

Years ago, I was working with a swimmer in an Olympic year. He was fast enough to have a real shot at making the team and had come up the ranks quickly so didn’t have a full arsenal of mental strategies. In our first conversation, as we talked about Olympic Trials and a strategy for how to prepare for them, he said, “I’m just going to treat it like any other swim meet.” The long pause plus the hidden tone of desperation told me he knew this was insufficient. “That’s a mistake,” I said, “Trials is NOT like any other meet and if you walk in there thinking that, you will be wholly unprepared.” See, I had been to an Olympic Trials meet and it was unlike any other week in my life. As it turned out, he wasn’t up for the kind of mental preparation required to successfully navigate the pressure and stress of a Trials meet and he didn’t continue beyond a few sessions and he didn’t make the Olympic Team.

It takes tremendous work, extraordinary work to place first or second at an Olympic Trials swim meet. And now, with a global pandemic causing a personal crisis for us all, it is going to take extraordinary work to get us all through. Extra-ordinary, as in out of the ordinary. Yes, life is anything but ordinary right now so what can you do? Please don’t treat this like any oterh problem. My main recommendation is to find relief, mentally, emotionally, and physically, throughout each day. Yes, you need to INCREASE your care for yourself and restore and recover your energy multiple times each day! MULTIPLE times EACH day. We are in for a longer haul than we thought so you can’t stretch out your energy now, you won’t make it. You can only control so much, and I promise you can control your energy better than you know.

Find as much routine as you can to ground yourself. If you normally exercise, then exercise (at home, not at the gym). Eat normally. I know this is a tough one because not only are we prone to stress-eating, but we also feel scarcity from all angles and that can cause you to want to eat more. But do your best because it will support you physiologically and you and everyone around you needs that. Keep as much of your normal as possible so you have familiarity to lean on. Sleep, broken record I know, but really do the best you can to sleep. As for the not-normal part, set alarms for deep breathing and taking a walk. If you are working from home and not used to it, getting stuck at your desk or on the couch is a trap. If you are home and NOT working, get up, move around, talk to people on the phone (like we used to do), and drink some water. Your normal routine doesn’t take mental energy so it will actually allow you to see your upset and stress better. Doing the barn chores in the morning for me is rote, habit, and takes very little mental energy. I could SEE how upset I was because the backdrop of the barn was unobtrusive. You need to be able to see your upset so you can recover from it as quickly and as much as possible. The stress is not going away but your ability to “get through” this will depend upon how you take care of yourself now and for the foreseeable future.

Something we always say to new staff here at our barn is, “Do NOT suffer in silence!” Reach out, talk it out, cry it out, breathe it out, and look for ways to work it out. Nothing is normal right now so as this becomes our “new normal,” make your new habits supportive of you, your energy, and your tribe. If you don’t have someone to reach out to, reach out to me. We are all in this together.