“I’m exhausted. I’ve done absolutely nothing.”
This is what I hear from friends, students, and family. I say it, too.
We’re exhausted, but worried we’ve somehow missed the mark.
Why can’t I learn how to sew? Bake? Read those books that have been piling up? What’s the deal with my social calendar? Why haven’t I found the time to do Zumba, Pilates, and join in online workouts with my gym?
There is an expectation to do more with this abundance of time. To make the most of it. As if we’re all on an accidental vacation when, really, our physiological systems are on overload simply dealing with the current situation.
Navigating daily life has become more stressful than ever. New codes of conduct. New rules. New ways to feel ashamed. New, and very real, fears. We feel it in myriad ways. Short-tempered? Overload. Distracted? Overload. Lethargic? Overload. Cannot sleep? Overload. To be clear: the trauma response is your body’s unique and normal response to abnormal times.
It makes sense that a response to trauma is to shut our larger complicated thought processes down to focus on survival. Drop the capacity for mental gymnastics, up the capacity to conserve energy.
Now, what to do with that pressure to do more?
There are cardio workouts, high intensity interval training, Pilates, yoga, dance classes — the wellness and fitness industry pivoted fast to provide us all with versions we can do from home. I used to work out regularly. Should I start to run again, lift weights, pump up the volume somehow?
In normal life, I’m all for it. Now? I know I should look to counteract my internal state. But I’m choosing not to push too hard. For now, I’m moving slowly. Breathing deeply.
This isn’t to disparage anyone who finds solace in high intensity interval training or in hosting your own Great British Bake Off at home. But whether you are using exercise or cooking to cope during this time, there is evidence that there are times when doing less is important.
Don’t stack high intensity workouts back to back. If you are feeling especially lethargic, have a drop off in appetite, or feel increasingly anxious, these could be signs you are taxing your neuroendocrine system. Take a day off or mix in low-impact workouts like Pilates, yoga, and walking. Develop a deep breathing practice to help regulate the nervous system.
Lee Albert, a neuromuscular therapist, explores simple techniques for movement in his book Yoga for Pain Relief. He posits the average adult human needs to incorporate more back bends and twisting to offset the modern lifestyle. Now his observations seem more true than ever: sitting, hunching, lounging, and leaning forward to watch TV have elicited a habitual spinal movement. Rounded shoulders. Drooping head.
Lee would say, counteract it. Lift your chin. Sit at the edge of your seat and imagine the top of your head lifting to the ceiling. Broaden your collarbones. Pull your shoulders back. Take deep and even breaths. Turn to the right, breathe. Turn to the left, breathe.
I move this way once my feet touch the floor in the morning. The slight spinal twist and arching of my back breaks me free of my couch-floor-TV-laptop-bed back. Twist one way and the other. Breathe. While standing in the kitchen, waiting for my coffee to brew, I’ll lift my heart up a bit higher. Like I’m a marionette and my heart is tied to the string. Puppet master pulling higher. Breathe. Heart up, knees bent, shoulders soft. Awake. If I’m honest, I could skip the coffee afterwards. But, coffee.
Could it be that simple?
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Lee Albert, author of Yoga for Pain Relief.