The original version of this blog (in French) can be found here!
Last night, as I played Scrabble, I lost my patience because my son keeps winning and it’s starting to seriously undermine my ego.
“OK, you win. But it takes you 35 minutes to play your move and, in that time, I’m wasting a lot of my time!” (don’t ask me what else I could do in that time as I’m confined to my house…). “If you played faster, I could win!” (So, it’s his fault if I lose, which is completely illogical as you’ll surely agree). “And what’s more, it’s not fair! You always end up with the high value letters!” (my son must surely have a Scrabble magnet that mysteriously attracts the letters ‘Q’ and ‘U’ at the same time)”.
At the end of my tantrum, I found myself alone against my son and spouse, with my stomach tightened and my hands clenched. Half my brain was saying, “It’s them! It’s not me! It’s their fault,” and the other half of my brain was saying, “Really? Are you serious right now?”
I knew perfectly well why I had that sudden outburst of anger.
In 1998, two of my colleagues, Seema Bathnager and Mary Dallman, of the University of California in San Francisco, showed that if a rat is exposed to the same stressor for several days, the biological stress response produced by the animal will decrease over time. “Good news!” you might say. “We’ll end up habituating to the stress induced by the COVID-19 and we’ll all be zen by the end of the pandemic!” I don’t really have to tell you that because in further studies, Seema and Mary observed that although the rat shows a lower biological stress response on the 4th or 5th day of exposure to the same stressor, the same rat becomes significantly more reactive and sensitive to any new stressor.
Thus, the price of becoming accustomed to chronic stress is an increase in our reactivity to any new stressor. Harmless situations that would not normally stress us will start to seriously irritate us and lead to sudden outbursts.
Being confined at home for several days now, we are slowly getting used to this new stressor. On the other hand, the adjustment to the stress of confinement may lead to a greater reactivity to any other small or large annoyance that arises; whether it is a game of Scrabble that we lose for the 6th time online, a child who keeps asking the same question every half hour, spouse who doesn’t pick up their dirty clothes, or the announcement of losing our job.
So, what can we do about it? The idea of writing to you is far from wanting to stress you out. Rather, I am writing to inform you of what is happening to us in terms of stress, and to give you some possible solutions. And with regards to stress, the first weapon at our disposal is knowledge. When we know the source of our stress-related behaviours, we have already made great strides towards managing it.
Last night, while I was alone in my room after my meltdown, I realized that with the outburst of anger that had just occurred, my brain was sending me the message that I was beginning to experience chronic stress. I hadn’t really realized this until I was overcome with anger in a situation that normally would not have triggered any feelings of annoyance.
That’s the harmful effect of stress. It often settles in without you realizing it. That’s because the stress hormones that we produce when we are stressed, which have the ability to access our brain to affect our moods, act outside of our consciousness. I will write a blog post about this to teach you how to recognize your stress responses.
Yesterday, I saw my anger outburst as a very clear message that my brain was sending me – “You are starting to develop chronic stress dear friend. You’re soon going to have to do something to stop it from becoming too much”.
Looking back at how I’ve been acting since my confinement on Saturday, I realized that I’m overwhelmed by the media demands and blogs I want to write to you, and that I forgot to walk my dog at least twice a day like I’ve been doing for the past 25 years. Poor guy, he tried to let me know on several occasions that I was neglecting our daily walks. But I couldn’t have him come and beg for attention every minute of the day when I was so busy getting all my work done.
And plus, the weather has been great almost every day this week! I know very well that physical activity, bright daylight, the company of my son and spouse, and having my dog beside me are four very important factors that will help to reduce my stress response. I am going to write a few blog posts on this subject, for your benefit and hopefully mine too! We will then be able to put in place simple ways to reduce our stress responses in these times of COVID-19. Together, we will be able to control the mammoths!
But before continuing my blog, I will shut down my laptop and go for a walk with my dog.
And as I walk, I’ll try to figure out how my son was able to place the French word ‘soyez’, on a triple word score while adding the letter ‘s’ from ‘soyez’ to another high value word.
See you soon 🙂