The Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Great saying — except the “tough” often don’t know when to stop. If you suggest they take some time off and rest, they say, “Yup, sure. Will do.” And then they don’t.

I’m Fine!

Some people have trouble understanding that psychic distress is real (i.e., has measurable effects) and universal (i.e., if you are a living creature with a brain, you will experience it). These people are “fine” and “just have to get this done”; it’s only other people who feel anxious and overwhelmed. Their quaint belief is sustainable as long as the stress has a deadline. (The job gets done and everyone gets a rest.) It’s different when the stress is long-term and without a definite end. In such times, how do you show the Energizer bunnies and never-say-no types that they really do need to check out for a while?

Honestly, Buddy …

You’ll have to be direct, because a stressed-out person doesn’t do subtlety. To avoid sounding accusatory it helps to call out observable effects — impatience, irritation, brusqueness, mistakes in what they’re doing, mishearing what others are saying. If there’s blowback, validate their feelings (“I can see this really upsets you”; “I understand you may not want to hear this right now”) and reassure them of their value: “You’re an important member of this team. We can’t afford for you to burn out.”

It’s a Blizzard Out There

I find it useful to avoid psychological language. Lots of people discount psychology altogether or think it doesn’t apply to them, and will tune you out the minute you start talking about feelings. Try weather analogies instead. Compare the current situation to a hurricane or ice storm — any climactic condition that interrupts business as usual and impedes our habits. Liken the brain to a house or a car or anything that might take a licking in such weather. Rest, recreation, whatever is grounding and spiritually or mentally restorative: this is like putting shutters on the windows or making sure the tank is filled and the windshield wipers are working.

Because a storm is what we are experiencing now, during this Covid crisis. NOTHING IS NORMAL, and our brains are working overtime, making adaptations all day, every day. Eventually, our brains will recognize the patterns of the new normal and will be able to work more efficiently. In the meantime, we’re going to be feeling anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted — whether we are aware of it or not.

Aware = Care

The key point is awareness. Our “tough” friends (lots of our “emotional” friends, too!) are often unaware of their own anxiety; indeed, some of them don’t understand anxiety at all. They confuse it with worry and are blind to its effects on their behaviour. Again, under ordinary circumstances we can chalk this up to “personality” and make the necessary accommodations. But in a crisis, unacknowledged anxiety can cause serious problems. Because anxiety is really uncomfortable, even painful. The anxious person will do anything for relief — act rashly, pick a fight, lash out. Those actions cause damage which then takes precious energy to rein in and repair.

People who are aware of their own anxiety, on the other hand, have their inner traffic lights on yellow. They approach tricky situations cautiously and give others the benefit of the doubt. They check their first reactions and balance them against the facts. They remember their manners!

Take a Rest; Then Bring Your Best

The emotionally aware can really help in times like this, by calling out (lovingly or at least non-judgementally) any anxiety-driven behaviour they observe and offering clear and acceptable ways for the colleague, friend or family member to take a break and take care of themselves.

But be careful, you emotional geniuses: Your gift can quickly become a burden. Expect a point at which you must stop helping others and care for yourself for a while. You might find it difficult but it’s a matter of survival. Say to yourself, “Just because I understand it doesn’t mean I’m responsible for it.” Picture the concern or situation or person as a book. Close the book and put it on a mental shelf. You can always pick it up again later; in the meantime, take a bubble bath, go for a run, hug a tree or smash some tennis balls against a wall for a while — whatever it takes to settle your insides and clear your mind.

Friends, we need to pace ourselves. Because this is a marathon we’re running.

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