Adrenaline Hangover 

I have never travelled less and yet I have never felt more tired. Honestly, I am struggling to get past 9:30pm and It’s not a regular gentle sleep, but a sort of brutal exhaustion that comes down like the final curtain on a West End play. 

I wonder if this is the sort of nervous exhaustion that the disciples are exhibiting in Matthew 26:40 where we read, ‘Then Jesus returned to the disciples and found them sleeping. “Were you not able to keep watch with Me for one hour?”’ I have always wondered why they were unable to keep their eyes open at such a pivotal moment in the history of the universe, but perhaps they were totally arenalined out: Living in status anxiety is taking a silent toll on us all and we may not even be aware of it. 

Our ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism is an intricate and sensitive bodily system which operates sporadically in the face of defined threats. Those of us with anxiety conditions know how exhausting over-operation can be. During its activation, two key hormones Epinephrine (Adrenaline) and Cortisol are released into our blood streams. They have a powerful effect on our bodies including:

Increasing our heart rates to pump oxygen more efficiently around the body
Directing blood toward the major muscle groups and away from our extremities
Increasing breathing rates to give the muscles more oxygen
Sharpening the focus and processing speed of our brains
Dilating the pupils in our eyes so that we can see threats better.

The ‘Fight or Flight’ mechanism is a lifesaver when an angry bear bursts into your mountain lodge, or a reckless Uber driver swerves into your cycle path. What it isn’t brilliant for is helping you to avoid a virus that you cannot see, let alone sense: Rather than experiencing adrenaline as a short sharp shock, many of us are living in a permanent state of low-level anxious arousal.

A witty meme was going around (when we were still amused by witty memes) that said, ‘This is the first time in history where you can save the world by lying on your couch and watching TV. Let’s not mess this up.’ The difficulty that we are now finding is that relaxing on the sofa whilst thousands of people are dying is impossible.

Let’s think about offering the same advice in different settings: There is a hurricane coming: ‘Try lying on the couch and watching Netflix.’ A war has started: ‘Don’t worry about it, there is a new series on Sky.’ Your friends are dying of a mystery disease: ‘Just have a little relaxing nap.’ Sound incongruous? Yes, it should. That’s because what are not wired to relax in that face of threats, we are wired to run or fight.

I was speaking to my big sister, Dr Alice, yesterday. She is doing her thing, saving people’s lives and generally being an NHS legend. I asked her if she was tired. She said, ‘I’m a doctor. I’m just doing my job.’ (Queue fighter jet, kitten pictures, clapping scaffolders). I, on the other hand, am doing copious amounts of Zoom chats. (OK, I’m praying and all that good stuff too, but you get my drift.) In the face of the most significant threat to our lives and societies in a century, my body isn’t telling me to lie on the sofa and watch TV. 

If we are going to thrive during this really difficult season of our lives, it won’t come because we think it should be easy to wait it out. This lockdown isn’t some sort of national holiday, because holidays have as much to do with mindset than they do about location. You might well be in a safe physical location, but the circumstances remain loaded with threat. This sort of waiting is not the, ‘Observe the beach whilst you wait in line for your ice cream’ sort of waiting. It is more like the, ‘Urgently scroll through medical sites whilst you wait for your hospital test results’ sort of waiting. It is a discipline, not a delight. It is the sort of waiting that the David is describing in Psalm 27:14 when he says, ‘Wait patiently for the LORD; be strong and courageous. Wait patiently for the LORD.’

Another way of looking at the same verse would be to say, ‘Wait with patience, strength and courage.’ (David is not asking you to do anything else strongly or courageously in the Psalm.) Waiting well has everything to do with strength and courage right now, because just like the Psalmist, we wait in an environment of theat.

Here are a few things you can do as you wait, which require strength and courage, but could help you to regain your peace:

  • Be strong and avoid reading the news in bed or scrolling the feeds. Reduce your overall exposure to media that makes you feel under threat.
  • Courageously dive into a new daily routine and allow it to become your new normal (at least for the moment).
  • Be a strong and compassionate voice for others who are struggling in the waiting by listening and encouraging them over a phone call.
  • Be determined in the face of spiralling worries and re-direct your attention back to your immediate setting.
  • Pray with faith for all who are suffering/serving or struggling right now.
  • Worship, even in the waiting. God is still good and worthy of our praise. 
Will Van der Hart, 22/04/2020
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