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A Normal Response to Abnormal Times

The current state of affairs – locally, nationally and globally – are testing everyone’s “window of tolerance” for their ability to manage stress 1

What is happening today is certainly not in the scope of our everyday lives – which for many, are already stressed beyond this zone of tolerance. We are being challenged to the max!

In order to get a handle on how to best manage ourselves, let’s start with a definition of stress. The definition that I find most helpful, is “the PERCEIVED amount of control we think we have or don’t have.” The operative word here is “perceived.”

The reason that natural disasters (abnormal times) cause us so much distress is because we have very little control over external events that are happening to us. Our anxiety level naturally goes up. With the Coronavirus (COVID-19) we have, at this writing, many of the same feelings.

There is a plethora of conflicting information and not enough data to make good informed decisions based on facts. This situation leaves each and every one of us left to our own devices as to how we, historically, manage uncertainty and the unknown.

The question becomes, how can we increase our own “window of tolerance” so that we can “receive, process and integrate” information and function effectively in these challenging times?

Once we can do that in this high-stress situation, we should be in great shape when the crisis dies down and the unknown becomes more known. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Stress affects both the mind and the body

Therefore, the remedy must include an antidote for each.

Earlier this week, I was acutely aware of how anxious I was. The muscles in my neck and shoulders were tight and I was having difficulty concentrating. I had a wedding celebration planned for my son and daughter-in-law and the daily news was letting me know that I couldn’t wait much longer to make the decision that I didn’t want to make.

Wanting to calm myself down, I thought, “Let’s go to that 7 am yoga class tomorrow.” Lo and behold, I had a terrible night’s sleep and the thought occurred to me to skip the class and stay in bed, come morning. However, that wise voice crept in and reminded me that yoga has never disappointed me. I always feel better after a class than before.

I dragged myself out of bed, went to the class and the intense physical and mental symptoms of stress were greatly alleviated for the rest of the day.

Managing our thoughts

This is another key ingredient in managing our stress.

I just got off the phone with a colleague whose mind was sending him into a near panic attack. He makes his living speaking and traveling. Having to get on three planes in the next week and the fear of losing his income, was beyond his nervous system’s “window of tolerance.” He was freaking out.

I gave him a few tips that you can use when you find that your “monkey mind” has taken over.

1. Become aware of your thoughts. You can’t change anything if you don’t know how you’re talking to yourself. Our unconscious programming runs in the background. And if you haven’t trained yourself to manage the wild nature of your mind, it will run you.

2. Ask yourself “Are my thoughts are producing something useful?” I like to use the term, “productive thinking,” rather than positive thinking. If you notice your thoughts are taking you into a downward spiral, it’s your job to take charge and shift them.

Yes, this may be easier said than done, but, this next phrase may help:

3. “What’s in my control? What’s out of my control?

This is the key to beginning to find your way out of a stressful situation. People frequently believe that being in control means controlling other people or events. This is an impossible endeavor. Being in control of our lives means being at choice as to how we think and behave.

When things get really tough for me, I go back to Victor Frankl’s book “Man Search for Meaning. 2 Living through the worst of times in a concentration camp, he was clear that the only thing the Nazis couldn’t control was his mind. It’s a powerful reminder of how truly resilient we can train our minds to be.

This current crisis will pass. We don’t know how or when. And we know it’s extremely difficult to plan when we have so little information to go on.

But we can become much better at managing ourselves. When you notice that the fear within you is beginning to rise, follow the steps above. You’ll soon find that you are operating at a calmer level, like the great leaders, athletes, and performers you so greatly admire!


1 Window of tolerance is a term used to describe the zone of arousal in which a person is able to function most effectively. When people are
within this zone, they are typically able to readily receive, 
process, and integrate information and otherwise respond to the demands of
everyday life without much 
difficulty. www.goodtherapy.org › GoodTherapy Blog › PsychPedi
2 Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, Boston, 1946.

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