This is not a drill: Self-Compassion in Times of Extreme Stress

College girl wearing backpack from behind

This is not a drill. 

If you feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you, you are not alone. None of us were prepared for this. Though anyone might feel blindsided in other crisis situations, there are behaviors we all practice in order to be prepared for those situations, just in case. We take CPR classes to prepare to help someone who is choking or in cardiac distress. In schools, we actually practice fire drills, hurricane/tornado drills, earthquake drills, and shelter in place and active shooter drills, all to provide a plan for dealing with a worst-case scenario that we expect (hope) will never happen. 

Drills are fast, allowing you to practice emergency behaviors briefly, with no real danger looming, and then return to “normal life.” In school, they interrupted your math class for 10 minutes. If you’ve ever had to evacuate a building because someone burned popcorn in a microwave, you know what it’s like to think that it’s going to be a quick drill, but instead have to wait longer for the fire department to come in and make sure everything is ok. You might worry that there is a real emergency, but when you go back into the building, things return to normal even if the smell of burnt popcorn lingers in the air. 

In the current situation, things didn’t seem all that serious at first because… well, we don’t even have a drill for this, right? It can’t be that bad if we don’t even run drills for it, right? And the messages we were given initially were that it would end relatively quickly – like a drill. It was just a couple of weeks off school. Then, just a couple of weeks of working from home, if possible. But we held out hope that we’d be able to return to “normal,” even if it had that burnt popcorn smell. By now, though, we have all been eased into a “new normal” that is stressful in so many ways and that we weren’t prepared for. Without a drill, there are no practiced behaviors to fall back on. 

Instead, you had to learn new behaviors, and very quickly, in every single aspect of your life. New hygiene behaviors, new shopping behaviors, new parenting behaviors, new routines (or lack thereof), new time management and planning behaviors, new social behaviors, new uses of technology, new work behaviors, new financial behaviors, new self-care behaviors (anyone else learn to give a “quarantine haircut”?), new interactions with your partner, and more. If you’re a parent, your children have had to adjust to their “new normal” too, with even less warning and fewer coping strategies than you have as an adult with a more fully developed brain. All of this is going on while there is an unprecedented level of fear for the health and financial and emotional stability of friends and family. In short, it’s a lot to deal with. A whole lot. 

As a psychologist, I know that learning new behaviors and habits can be hard. We can get easily overwhelmed when changes are needed in just *one* aspect of our lives, let alone *all* aspects. When I ask children to change their behaviors (usually with the help of parents and teachers), it takes a lot of structure, motivation, practice, and consistency. It also takes a significant amount of emotion regulation. Change is hard. And as humans, we have a lot of emotions to regulate when dealing with that change. And some humans (of all ages) have a harder time doing this than others. 

If dealing with disappointment is difficult when one important event in your life is cancelled, of course it is going to be exponentially harder when *everything* in your life is cancelled. Some things are day to day life events (like Tuesday. Regular Tuesday has been cancelled. We don’t even know what day it is anymore…) Others are really big life events – graduations, vacations, family reunions, weddings, class trips, surgeries, concerts, theater productions, sports seasons, and competitions. Things you have poured blood, sweat, and tears into may no longer even be on the radar as important for most people. Some of those things that have been cancelled may even be essential to your daily survival, like your paycheck, your health insurance, the cleaning supplies in your grocery order, and even toilet paper. 

All of this to say, we need to give ourselves a break if we’re not able to keep up with online schooling and working from home at the same time. Or if we’re struggling to control our emotions with our kids and partners. Or if we’re having trouble getting motivated to start work or schoolwork. Or if we missed a zoom meeting. Or if we haven’t been productive every minute of the day. Lots of feelings come up in response to these situations and the underlying cause: sadness, fear, guilt, and frustration among them. These are to be expected and felt by all of us.

This “break” I’m talking about comes in the form of “self-compassion” – giving yourself the same empathy, understanding, and caring that you would give a friend or loved one. Or as I explain it to kids, “being a friend to yourself.”

Having self-compassion is not always easy, even when our environment is relatively normal, because many of us tend to set high expectations for ourselves and then get down on ourselves for not meeting them. If your close friend were going through dramatic changes in every single area of their life, you would want to be supportive, right? You wouldn’t get angry at them for not meeting expectations. You wouldn’t call them “the worst parent” or a “failure.” You would be kind to them. You might ask about how they feel, what they need, or how you can help. You might remind them of how strong they are and that they are doing a great job, especially given the circumstances.

“Being a friend to yourself” means being kind to yourself, just as you would for a friend. Engage in some self-talk – “We’re all having a hard time right now, I’m not alone in this, it is ok to feel the way I’m feeling.” We cannot expect the negative feelings to just go away – they are normal and a part of all of us in this moment. But we need to determine how to move forward while having and acknowledging those feelings.

Some self-coaching may help as well – “I am recognizing that I only have so much energy right now – what do I really need to use it for and what can I let go?” You can take a step back and ask yourself what you need or what might help you manage this time better. Figure out what you *don’t* need (for example, is checking the news every 5 minutes helping with your anxiety or helping you be present with your family?).

This is not a license to do nothing or give up on doing things that are important right now – many of us do not have a choice but to “keep going” to take care of our families and society. But you are still human and you still need and deserve kindness in order to get through this. During stressful times, it is ok to make taking care of ourselves and our loved ones the priority. 

By: Lisa Ahern, PhD