Four different coping strategies/modes for managing crisis… in this case the COVID19 pandemic
The Covid19 pandemic, a global crisis that unfolds at present, has challenged our feelings of safety and has triggered a prolonged activation of our sympathetic nervous system. This means that it is hard for most people to feel calm and safe as they fear that there is an imminent danger either to their health or finances as a result of this pandemic. This creates many worry or angry thoughts, tension in their bodies, psychosomatic symptoms and difficulty to evaluate this crisis objectively and with clarity.
All human beings try their best to survive life-threatening or psychologically threatening situations. From birth, our autonomic nervous system develops in order to protect us and to help us stay alive. As we get older and with our growing relational experiences, our initial automatic reflexes develop into strategies that are organised systems of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. These coping strategies ensure the survival of our psyche when our needs for safety, love and validation are not met. However, the very same strategies that helped us in the past to survive (for example when there was an emotionally unresponsive, invalidating, punishing or abusive environment) may be stopping us right now from facing this pandemic with patience, logic, calmness, and acceptance.
In the following paragraphs, we will present 4 different strategies for managing stressful situations, in this case, COVID19. We will see how surrendering in despair (freeze), fighting aggressively this problem (fight) or panicking and losing perspective (flight) might be unhelpful and maladaptive strategies. The fourth strategy discusses how we can face this problem and manage it in a constructive way; thus reducing emotional pain and angst and increasing our chances for responding effectively to this crisis.
Sometimes individuals may use different strategies for the same problem or different strategies for different problems. Although flipping from one strategy to another is often an understandable and common reaction, people who mostly employ the ‘face’ mode are better able to identify their slip into maladaptive strategies and thus ultimately switch to the most effective strategy for the specific problem.
Adaptive and maladaptive responses to crisis: Fight/flight/freeze/face
Whilst the fight response might be extremely appropriate when we are physically attacked and we need to fight back to save our lives, in the COVID19 situation it is unhelpful as it drains us, it unsettles us and obscures our clarity. People in the fight mode are likely to think that this crisis situation is unfair, that somebody has caused this deliberately, that nobody really cares about their needs, that they are unimportant to the system, that their leaders don’t have their best interest at heart etc.
People who tend to adopt the fight response often lack a secure basis from which they can evaluate danger and seek appropriate support when required. They often present with issues of mistrust stemming from having been mistreated, neglected, invalidated, traumatised or abused in the past. As a result of such experiences they tend to rebel against or be suspicious of authority because they previously lost faith in authority figures in their lives. They feel that they can’t trust reality as it is presented to them and they tend to be overly suspicious, make negative interpretations and think of conspiracy theories. They may object to the rules and measures imposed and put themselves and others at risk because of such behaviours.
The main emotion activated in the fight response is anger, however anxiety and fear are likely to be hidden underneath. Although it is understandable to be angry about the current situation, being aggressive, distrusting and overly negative is unhelpful and does not eventually enable them to feel safe and reassured. For those operating in fight mode blaming others gives them a false sense of control during these uncertain times. However, blaming and negativity invite their nervous system to be in a constant overdrive, generating more anger, unsettlement and agitation.
Similarly to the fight response, the flight coping strategy is vital when danger is approaching and is imminent and we need to act quickly to survive. However when this threat passes we need to recalibrate/restore our nervous system and connect with the safe space internally and externally. Those who are trapped in this mode feel a constant drain and act as if they perceive their lives being under a constant threat.
People who opt for the flight response tend to have an innate anxious temperament. If such temperament was met by an anxious or traumatic environment when they were younger, they might have difficulties regulating their anxiety and reassuring themselves that they are safe or that they can work towards creating safety. Even neutral situations might be interpreted as potentially dangerous activating their sympathetic nervous stress response that creates tension in their body and sets them ready for fast action.
When it comes to COVID19 they may predict that the world will never return back to normal, that they will never be able to recover financially, that they may die if they leave their home even if they don’t engage in potentially risky behaviours, that there will be extreme social upheaval following this epidemic, that we will always live in a state of fear and so on.
When people adopt the flight response they tend to panic, to feel lost and overwhelmed. They tend to live in their head whilst their body is tense and exhausted. In an attempt to manage their fear, they overthink and worry however their thoughts are mood dependent, thus they have worry, overwhelming and catastrophic thoughts. They believe that thinking about all possible worst-case scenarios may help them to form a contingency plan, to save themselves when everything collapses. However, the biggest problem they tend to encounter is their anxiety and panic themselves. It is impossible to think clearly and make the right decisions when all your thoughts are clouded by fear and there are internal alarm systems vibrating in your whole body. Their nervous system is in a constant overdrive. They can’t sleep, they lose perspective as they are tired and in a constant anxious state. Their relationships, a relational space that creates feelings of safety, suffer as overly anxious people may not be emotionally present to connect with those close to them.
When in flight mode some people may turn to food, smoking and drinking to escape from their intense emotions. Such an escape does not last for too long though and they subsequently feel worse for it. Others may watch the news constantly in an attempt to evaluate the threat. This tends to create further panic as they tend to misinterpret the facts or they are in fact bombarded by overdramatized fear provoking news.
The freeze response is linked to numbness and dissociation. When human beings are unable to protect themselves during an attack, they detach from reality so that they survive the trauma. In the case of COVID19 they may be withdrawn and isolated at home avoiding being in touch with what happens in the outside world. They may think that their life is destroyed for good, that they are unlucky and that no better days will come. They may even wonder what is the point of living in this world and thus engage in harmful and addictive behaviours that keep them cut off from their emotions and disturbing thoughts.
Such passive stance maintains their view of themselves as weak and vulnerable and of the world as a dangerous place. They don’t seek opportunities for connecting with life or events that might create a sense of empowerment, joy and pleasure that can ultimately help them build their strength. Their view of themselves as victims doesn’t help them to be resourceful and cultivate their self-confidence and resilience.
In non-imminent life threatening situations, persistent detachment and numbness are linked to depression. Some people respond to life crises and adversities with surrendering to them and their helplessness. These people might have been brought up in an emotionally unavailable or punitive environment. They might have experienced life adversity whilst lacking a role model that was resilient and hopeful. Growing up, they might have had limited opportunities or stimuli for connecting with a positive life energy flow. For these reasons, they might have formed a view of life as daunting.
To face means be fully present, aware and unbiased in relation to crisis. It requires creating space in the body for the emotions associated with this crisis to flow and be detoxified. One can achieve this by approaching this crisis with curiosity and openness. Although there are understandably feelings of fear and anger, one has a choice to either build the script of this crisis based solely on fear and anger or to create an integrated narrative that also encompasses trust in themselves and others, compassion, gratitude, patience and faith in humanity. Although people feel particularly vulnerable as there is uncertainty and they cannot independently control this pandemic, to face this problem means to create space in them even for this uncertainty to flow without judgment or negativity.
People who opt for the face strategy in dealing with life crises tend to have a secure enough base from which they embark into the world. Although they might have experienced life adversities in the past they demonstrated resilience as they believed that they could recover using the resources available to them. They tend to acknowledge the severity of a situation and the emotions elicited by it but they are confident that they can manage and survive the crisis. This requires for the individual to have had previous trusting and caring relationships that helped them generate a sense of the world as safe enough and of themselves as capable enough.
Regarding COVID19, a facing response means to estimate and accept the severity of this pandemic whilst trusting that the whole humanity collaborates towards resolving this problem or at least minimising risk. Whilst in fight, flight and freeze responses the individuals tend to misinterpret and distort reality, when in face mode one evaluates the severity of the situation based on facts. Although sometimes we have no definitive answers at the initial stages of a crisis, one needs to have the intention to trust that the appropriate authorities that manage this crisis try their best to protect people and resolve this problem. For most countries, the people managing this pandemic were democratically elected by a majority that voted for those who would, in their view, be most capable and willing to care for the people. This does not mean to trust those who manage this pandemic blindly but to start from an unbiased and open space to process what they propose without rushing to attack them out of fear or anger.
No matter how difficult things are, if we believe that there is a wise caring system that has the intention to protect us we feel calmer and more hopeful. This is perhaps one of the few times that most governments try to act as a caring body who primarily wants to keep their citizens alive. Human life seems to be the core value for most countries. This thought or fact may help us feel safe and hopeful. We still need to keep in mind that a caring enough governing body might not be able to substitute all the things or people that we might have lost because of this crisis. However, it can be there to support us to pursue what we need moving forward in order to recover and grow.
When in the face mode individuals identify all resources available to them and work on how they can develop other relevant resources that are missing. They identify their strengths and they imagine themselves coping when facing a difficult situation rather than breaking and dissolving. Rather than looking for the worst-case scenarios they have a plan for coping and surviving. They perceive the crisis as a diversion of their chosen life path that might throw them out of their path for a bit but then they will find a way to get back on this path being wiser and more determined as a result of such diversion. Such a stance requires psychologically flexibility and a positive life view when it comes to crisis situations.
Actually, one could write a whole manual for many different and constructive ways that people employ in the face mode in order to cope in adversity. Being grateful, compassionate, mindful, flexible and patient are few core and vital skills. Caring, connecting and contributing are some life saving values. Meaning and purpose are also driving forces that keep people going when life adversity hits. And finally loving and feeling loved help people feel alive, safe and connected.
- All human beings try their best to survive life threatening or psychologically threatening situations however our old ways may need an ‘upgrade’
- The way people respond to crises stems from their temperament and their life experiences
- People who grew up in a family and/or social environment that helped them experience the world as a safe place and themselves as capable and resilient are more likely to adopt the face coping strategy.
- People’s emotions regarding this crisis are understandable. Loss often comes with crisis and loss triggers many uncomfortable emotions. To face means to acknowledge these emotions but let them flow without getting stuck in the fight/flight/freeze thought patterns and behaviours.
- Over-passivity or over-activation are both damaging. To face means to avoid any extreme reactions and to be aware and alerted but not in a constant state of alert with lots of red lights constantly flashing in and out of you.
- It is understandable that we may at times flip between coping strategies. However we need to observe this and switch to the most effective mode that is to face the crisis in an effective and mindful way.
- Critical thinking does not need to be judgmental or negative thinking, it is an evaluative process that starts from an open stance.
- If there is good enough evidence that there is a caring body in charge of the crisis consider showing trust. This way, you may feel safe rather than anxious or angry.
- It is easier to face this crisis when one cultivates compassion for those in charge for making major decisions regarding our lives. They have a difficult task to undertake and they can’t be perfect. They only need to be good enough.
- To face requires considering the current crisis as a temporary diversion from ones actual path. The final destination can be reached despite the diversion. This requires focusing on exploring different ways to get back on track rather than wasting time or depleting one’s energy by blaming, ruminating and worrying. One might be better equipped to walk his life path following this diversion.
- tend to react by employing the fight-flight-freeze responses, COVID19 may be seen as an opportunity for them to give ‘face’ a go and see if this helps them deal with crisis more effectively.
- Preserving human life seems to be the core value for most countries right now. We witness a pro-life collective effort unfolding. This fact may help us feel safe and hopeful for the future
Even if some