Lockdown is more of an endurance sport than a sprint, so unless you trained for it, there was a moment when you hit the wall. I was on Week 2.5 when I started wailing like a little kid in front of my kid, lashing out at the doorframe, and was sent to my room by my husband.
Not a good look for a grown-up. But emotions, stress and uncertainty are tough things to tackle whatever your age, particularly when the race is already running and the finish line is a moving target.
Dr Nathan Smith is an expert in extreme stress. He spends his research time with people who live on the edge of physical, psychological and social reality – astronauts, polar explorers – people you and I are unlikely to encounter in daily life. But his work at the University of Manchester came in handy when I was at my low ebb during this crisis.
Quarantine, Smith said to me over the phone when he graciously responded to my cry for help, is maddening because human beings like structure. We develop our lives to follow a certain routine.
Some people – like me, it turns out – are more fixed than flexible. And when that’s disrupted, we lose it. Combine that with a big dose of uncertainty and a feeling of powerlessness, and it’s a recipe for self-sabotage.
© Scott Ballmer
Most people are terrible at noticing when things are going downhill, Smith explained, but the first signs that there might be a problem is that we stop paying as much attention to ourselves and our belongings as we might otherwise.
Out in the field, holes might start appearing in a tent or in a sleeping bag. At home, rubbish might start piling up, or we might stop showering.
If there’s anyone around us, they might start hearing more negative things coming out of our mouths. It might seem that we’ve lost optimism and hope. There might be more fights. More tears. More unhelpful vices.
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While we might not be able to control the outside world, we can control our mindset. We can choose how we think about things – acknowledge that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
We are still in charge of our thoughts, even if our actions have been locked down. And we can wrestle autonomy back into our lives by setting up a routine that helps us structure our days and give us a sense that we are still in charge of our lives.
Polar explorer Eric Larsen told me that around Day 40 of any big expedition he’s been on, he has a moment of release, when he lets go of the old ‘normal’ and gives in to the new. It’s the redemption song to the temper tantrums on the ice, and the routines that help him get through each day but ultimately make his journey monotonous and incredibly arduous.
We may not have the same physical demands as Eric, but we can certainly learn from people like him who put themselves in extreme situations. And after this race, I’ll be trained up for the next round of whatever the Universe has in store for us…