Avoidant Responses to Our Endlessly Stressful Summer Trip
Muskrats, ostriches, and possums—oh, my!
Posted September 7, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- This summer's ambient threats and uncertainties are generating a complex mix of intense emotional states to manage.
- Avoidant responses to these stresses include "flight" and "freeze."
- Meditative exercises working specifically on these ways of "tuning out" can help us better identify and adapt to this difficult moment.
This summer has been one of the most stressful trips in memory, with its uncertainties, its climatic and viral threats, and its traumatic events. Rather than the promise of relaxation, most of us have been of necessity in heavy brain-stemmin' mode: that is, fight/flight/freeze as an ambient, undercurrent hum, a most miserable song of summer. Think "Muskrat Love" on endless replay.
In the first of this trio of posts on identifying the current situation and some palliatives, I tossed out a place-holding term, dysphoria, for the intermixed and co-existing currents of emotional discomfort—anxiety, grievance, sadness—that infuse our days, even before we step on a Lego on the way to the kitchen or take that first sip of java. The intensity of that brew (the ambient dysphoria, not so much the coffee) can be hard enough to hold that we reflexively respond with basic, primal threat reactivity. I touched on active, offensive, "fight" reactions last time. In these responses, we're prone to overdoing it on deserving targets of tension, and displacing grievance on others that don't deserve the counterpunch.
Some mindful interventions can be of good use here. In the last post, I framed out a more overarching "sit-with" exercise that takes cues from meditating on compassion and gratitude: consolation. This term is meant not as some contemplation in self-pity, but in a broader-than-personal sense. We're all in a state of belonging, ultimately (whether you buy into that spiritually, or understand it via quantum physics, as an endless ocean of energy). That shared, current reality includes some shared ache. I also reiterated a "rescue" tactic when that hot potato of dysphoria, and especially the urge to act it out, needs some cooling.
The B-side of an active/offensive, bellowing response to dysphoria is usually quieter, but not necessarily more effective. I'm grouping "flight" and "freeze" into a bin of suppressive/avoidant responses to threat. (Polyvagal Theory advocates may be ironically dysphoric over this simplifying framework; my apologies.)
Like with "fight," the Monty Pythonian "run away!" and ostrichian (it's a word!) "head in the sand"—or if you prefer another species, "playing possum"—are also evolutionary responses to threat. But today's contemporary threats are not episodic one-offs to steer around or play dead through. Instead, there's a persistent, slow simmer for us froggies in the pot.
Avoidance tactics are certainly valid and even life-saving. But in sustained states of stress, we can just become tuned out—numb to the stress, but to most everything else, too. Whereas a sizable cohort of my patients are distressed over their hair-trigger tempers, many more are currently reporting a persistent loss of motivation, interest, momentum, even empathy. Creativity can bottom out, too. A nihilism sets in, without the berets and Gitanes.
For others, the aggressive and avoidant styles are two sides of a coin. Example: a self-aware but intensely anxious patient of mine, trying to "play it down the middle" by staying informed about the global mess and mindful of her anxious reaction thereof, shared it with her usually stoic/contracted spouse. She was met initially with a dulled, "I don't watch the news anymore"; when she proceeded with just a little more personal sharing, a verbal explosion of offensive discontent on his part resulted.
As to that one last pet (heh) animal comparator, of all of us ribbiting in the pot (is it me, or does it seem to be getting hotter?): luckily, we have opposable thumbs to attempt to adjust the heat. More fortuitously, we have the capacity of mindfulness at our disposal, to cultivate and use to identify and adapt as best we can to this unprecedented state.
So, of course, again, mindfulness. Meditating on feeling avoidant, blah, deadened? That sounds tedious, but you can work with your patients/ students/selves to use the practice in this moment. And to be ready for some surprises.
Again, there's no whiz-bang technique: After some initial breath meditation to settle in, pivot our awareness to that state of "blah," of inert, of "meh." But here's the thing with self-observation here: "blah" can quickly overtake the meditating itself, into sluggish mindlessness.
So consider instead a kind of sequential "inventory": breath in, "meh," breath out, "how's that in [this aspect of experience]?" It's an imaginal gathering in, then expanding out of attention into...
- The physical for a minute or two, then to ...
- The emotional heart of the moment, then up to ...
- The co-incident ideas and ruminations that may present themselves.
Those surprises? Sensations, effects, and ideas blanketed over by the defensive cloak of flight/freeze may just light up in awareness, there for better understanding and adaptation. Some aspects may nevertheless highjack attention into mindless distraction or tunnel into dullness.
Like always, when awareness resurrects, we go back to a breath or two, then back to the inventory. With practice, our reactions become easier to hold, and our own coping strategies can move from the primal "three F's" to more nuanced and effective.
But for some, particularly those suffering from the effects of trauma, aspects of this endless summer are not "simmering," but prone to explosions, replays, and triggers of painful history. That's up in Part 3.
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.