The Psychological Cost of Repeated Emotional Beatdowns: Quarantine Edition

What does your quarantine routine look like?

Is it the utopian model of health, balance, rest, productivity, creativity, and reconnection that you just knew you’d achieve once all the obstacles of a life external were removed from your path? You know, traffic, errands, social dates, events, office time, gym obligations, etc. 

We’ve discussed at length the collective trauma response we’re all experiencing, and why our homebound lives don’t feel like the “staycations” we imagined they would be.

Unsurprisingly, we’re not firing on all cylinders when we’re experiencing trauma. 

But there’s another facet to that train of thought that psychologists are now studying in response to the COVID-19 crisis: allostatic load. 

First given a name in 1993, it’s likely you haven’t heard the term. Allostatic load refers to the body’s response to repeated hits of stress and agitation. 

Just like we feel repeated hits of dopamine when we post a new picture on social media and it gets tons of reactions, each blow to the nervous system compounds and stacks resulting in…

You guessed it – fatigue.

Bewitched, Body and Soul

As we’ve long understood, the body and the mind are connected. Stress can cause sleeplessness. Sleeplessness can cause gut issues. Gut issues can cause depression. And on and on.

When the mind experiences prolonged and repeated exposure to stressful events – news headlines, reminders of our situation, even slipping on a mask to go outside, etc. – the body experiences a physiological response.

In short? The mental energy we’re spending trying to keep up with unfamiliar stressors, in nature or in quantity, is exhausting us physically.

You see, allostasis refers to the way that the body uses homeostasis to temper physiological reactions in the body. A huge factor in maintaining that balance is predictability.

Society has been designed to stabilize inconsistencies and predict irregularity by removing it, for the most part. 

Pre-quarantine, we made plans. We knew we’d be going on vacation with our families in July. We knew we’d be heading to the office in the morning, and which clothes were clean and available for use. We knew we’d be eating out a certain numbers of times per week, and had a good idea of where. We knew the weekend would bring soccer games, dinners out, tai chi in the park. We knew that the evening car ride would be accompanied by our favorite radio show.

We knew our jobs were safe (mostly). We knew when our income would arrive and where it would go. 

We knew when we would next see our families and friends.

And now…

We just don’t.

The human mind is a pattern-creating, meaning-making machine. When we can’t make plans, and patterns can’t be tracked, and none of this makes sense, our brains go into overdrive trying to organize and catalogue all of it.

We’re collectively worrying for so much more of our days than we were before that it’s causing allostatic load. We’re doing less, and we’re less able to do it. 

Not only that, but the previous palliative – seeing other people – that used to tell the brain and the body “Hey, you’re not alone. Look at this network! Look at this hive!” has been severed from our reach. 

And so we have a brain dealing with a lack of human contact (turning that into danger and isolation), the absence of predictability, and an unending stream of bad news and stress. 

The Antidote

There’s one more thing to note: We’re not moving as much. Undeniably. 

When that happens, coupled with the fatigue of draining our brain’s energy resources, we tend to build up fat around our muscles. Immune cells like to populate around excess tummy fat, which causes inflammation.

Inflammation makes you tired. 

Can we correct allostatic load right now? Probably not completely.

Can we mitigate its effects so that we can use this time at home in the idyllic ways that we want to? Definitely.

The hardest thing to do when you’re emotionally and physically exhausted is get up… But it’s the truest answer.

Think about how you can increase your body’s movement. Think about how you can control your daily stress-hit count. Think about how you can embed certainty into your routine. 

Could you walk around your block as many times as it takes until you hit a mile, or practice a sun-salutation in the mornings, or institute a family Qi Gong or kickboxing practice right before dinner? 

Could you block news websites or social media from yourself for a number of hours in the day, or flood your feed with positive content, or give yourself a break at work by learning how to draw flowers instead of engaging in online political discourse? 

Could you ensure that every Thursday night is new-cuisine night where everyone agrees to learn a new dish from a different culture, or schedule Mondays as black-and-white movie night, or look forward to your two hours of uninterrupted reading time Sunday morning? 

Could you engage in quality time with family and friends via video chat on a regular, rotating basis – so that your brain and body remember you’re not alone? 

Don’t forget – we’re all only going through this for the first time.

Each of us wants to make the best of our time at home. Staying informed about what our bodies are doing is the first step to getting out of our own ways. 

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.