Recently, as Wendi and I reflected together about this past year, we were surprised by the unexpected ways the pandemic impacted us. This season of uncertainty has created unique challenges that we did not anticipate. Yet, through conversations, we have been reminded that we are not alone in our higher levels of stress and fluctuating emotions. This comfort of connection is a large part of the vision for The Unexpected Ever Afters blog, to create a space that is more reflective of the nuance in life and to challenge the isolation that oftentimes results from believing the unrealistic notion of perfection. This reminder led us to create a two-part mini-series for the next few posts. In Part 1, we will each reflect on our own journeys from this past year, sharing our different experiences yet similar struggles. In Part 2, we will each follow up with our perspectives on looking forward as we anticipate a future season of hope.
In a blog post from March 23, 2020, just a week into the first shutdown, I wrote:
“Together we will get through this. Together we will breathe. Together we will live in love and not fear, looking for the helpers, being the helpers, and sharing the message of hope with each other.”
Recently, when I re-read those words, I realized when I wrote them I had no idea what we were getting into, no idea just how long the pandemic would last. And, although I still find these concepts to be true, I also find them harder to put into practice. In many ways, it feels as if I stopped “breathing” and “sharing hope” months ago. I now live in a cynical alternate reality, fully aware of the uncertainty and chaos that has ensued in the year since I wrote that optimistic message. As I re-read my advice, I realized I also now associate fear with the post. I never anticipated navigating COVID-19 restrictions for over a year, and now I worry that maybe we’re still not in the clear, maybe I’ll have to type a similar message of shock again in a year from now. The idea that I might have to navigate another year of this pandemic is enough to initiate another anxiety spiral. Logically, I recognize that an anxiety spiral sparked by a thought process on a hypothetical situation is a bit dramatic. But, largely due to all the uncertainty and chaos of this past year, logic can feel a bit unrelatable.
A useful tool for describing my experience throughout this year is the 5-point scale (1 being the best and 5 being the worst). As a school social worker, I use 5-point scales daily as a way to assess students’ behavior and emotions and help them better understand more appropriate actions and reactions. I find that the simplicity of the numbers and the visualization of behavioral or emotional intensity make the 5-point scale a helpful tool. In regards to this season of uncertainty and all the emotional upheaval that the chaos has caused, I have found the 5-point scale to be particularly helpful in better understanding my own experience. What does it feel like to be at a 1? It feels great. I’m perfectly content, life feels manageable, my body is physically relaxed and I am happy. What does it feel like to be at a 5? The exact opposite, it feels terrible. Extreme emotions have hijacked my body, and I am consumed by either anger, anxiety, fear, or something equally exhausting. Life feels out of control and my body is physically tense and hypersensitive. Having used the 5-point scale regularly for several years,I can recognize where I am at with each number and identify my needs for each stage. Once I understand what level I’m at, I can then better support myself and, ideally, prevent any unnecessary increases to a level 5.
In a typical year, I experience regular ups and downs, but generally I’m able to reset with a good night’s sleep and start the next day back at a level 1. However, over this past year, something unexpected happened: I began to recognize that I was starting every day close to a level 3. The underlying stress of COVID-19, safety restrictions, isolation, transitions for my kids, and navigating school social work, my daily baseline is higher, causing increased stress levels due to the constant level of tension. The more I talk to other people, the more I realize this seems to be the new normal for a lot of people. And, I think that says something about this pandemic and the impact that it’s having on us, even when the effects aren’t always clearly visible.
Unfortunately, this shift to a new baseline of a level 3 means that I now perpetually hover that much closer to a 5. Typically, when I would walk into my workday at a 1 (feeling good), when something inevitably went wrong, my stress would increase a little bit and I would reach a 2 (A noticeable surge in my tension but still very manageable.) If another crisis occured, pushing me up to a level 3, I would be able to channel my resources and navigate through the crisis. At that point I would start to feel stressed but I would still be able to recognize the need to take a moment to calm down. Once I’d had a chance to reset, the ups and downs of the day would come and go but ultimately fade away. That is what a normal day during a normal year looked like for me. But, this past year, I have not been entering into each day at a 1. The impact of the cumulative stress is that I begin each day near a 3, and, consequently, I am no longer able to navigate as smoothly through the typical stressors in each day. Even small frustrations push me towards a 4, and then when that crisis occurs, it takes all of my remaining emotional strength to prevent myself from reaching a 5. Hovering near a 5 is unsustainable, and it makes the remainder of the day much more difficult. Simply put, I haven’t been myself. When I reflect on what it means to not feel like myself for a year, I realize just how exhausting and overwhelming that reality is.
Recently, I came across an article that helped explain why I am always at a 3. The title caught my eye: Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted — It’s Why You Feel Awful by Tara Haelle (August 17, 2020). I had never heard of “surge capacity” before but I did know that I had been feeling awful, so I kind of excitedly exclaimed to myself, “that’s it!” The author explained, “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short term survival in acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters… pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.” It clicked for me and I felt like I had a justifiable reason for how I had been feeling. Navigating the day-to-day while living in a pandemic has taken an actual toll on my emotional and physical reserves. I’ve reached my surge capacity limit and I have nothing left to smoothly work through the typical, daily stressors. To be honest, this doesn’t make daily life any easier. I still feel awful and exhausted. I just feel less crazy. Now, the miserable, anxiety-inducing, stuck-at-a-3 feelings make a little more sense.
Despite having conversations with Wendi about my experiences throughout this year, I really struggled to write this post. It was an emotional process as I reflected over the course of the year. It was difficult articulating about my own experiences as well as thinking about the tragedies and struggles others have faced. Even beyond COVID-19, many aspects of this past year have been devastating for so many. As I considered various national and global crises from the year, my mind instantly wanted to deny my own circumstances by instead comparing it to the pain of others. However, my challenge for myself is to hold both. To challenge myself when I start to wonder if my year has been tough OR if others have had it worse. Instead, I try to remind myself, yes, I have had a tough year AND others have had a tough year as well. Reality is not an “or” but an “and”. Because there is nothing good that comes from denying our own realities or adding a layer of guilt or shame on top of our already depleted emotions. As I processed my experiences, I pushed myself to be honest and authentic in writing this post, acknowledging the fact that looking back over this year has been difficult and draining. My challenge for you is to do the same and to allow yourself to feel the impact of a tough year without judgement, comparison, or shame. This season of uncertainty has been and continues to be heavy.
Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.