Psychological Hibernation and Resilience: There is a Season for Everything

For a few weeks I have been noticing that many of my patients seem to have entered a new state. It isn’t quite depression, though it sometimes seems like that. It doesn’t have the sharp edges of depression and it has a bit more energy to it. A number of people have shared feeling “bored and restless” at the same time, a feeling pattern I recognize personally, as do my elderly parents and children, from youngest to oldest. Sometimes, perhaps often, it is even hard to know what to talk about. And yet, we all have a great need and desire to connect and feel enlivened by the little social contact we have access to.

As I sit with people, I have experienced it as a kind of flattening. It mirrors the white-grayness of the winter sky over these last few weeks. It is as if the color has been drained from everything, but all remains recognizable, making the experience somewhat confusing and disorienting.

I have noticed too that many people are trying very hard to keep themselves up, to prevent their moods from falling lower or their anxiety from becoming more dominant and domineering. Some people have doubled down on predictable routines to provide structure, security, to mark time and to feel productive. Others are trying new things, grasping for a little life in novelty. And each of these strategies, while helpful and necessary, seem to bear less fruit than they might have in the past. The former is less comforting, the latter less exciting.

I am not referring here to the many people who are experiencing acute stress or distress: job loss, financial crisis, death of a loved one, being ill. In a way they may have more access to feelings because their situations are more extreme and their feelings make sense given what they are experiencing. There is an aliveness in their recognizable and relatable pain. I also do not mean to suggest at all that their plight is less important than what I am trying to capture and understand here. But the fact that these situations are understandable and we are regularly presented with objectively distressing stories of real hardship, makes trying to understand this other, more diffuse and perhaps pervasive, form of suffering necessary.

And so, I am referring to people living as much of their ordinary life as possible through this very difficult period in our history — through this amorphous, eerie, threatening and isolating time, now mid-winter when the isolation has been ratcheted up by extremes of weather and temperature.

Perhaps it was late January, as the vaccine started to roll out, that I first noticed a certain drop in people’s moods and another increase in this restless anxiety. I wondered about how the “light at the end of the tunnel” phenomenon may not initially inject us with hope and relief, but rather, or perhaps also wake us up to the reality of what a slog this has been and how far the end of the tunnel still feels from this point. When we are actively coping and have some sense of mastery over what we are doing, when we have adjusted to the situation at hand, we are not looking too far into the future; we are just dealing. When the end is at least in sight we are confronted with the question of how we can possibly make it from here to there on so little nourishment.

I think of resilience as comprising processes that human beings use on behalf of the self to both survive adversity and also to thrive in favorable conditions. [1] To my mind, resilience is not about being “strong” in the sense of being unaffected by what life throws at us. Increasingly I think it is truly about flexibility. How do we stretch into spaciousness and opportunity when it presents itself for our growth and expansion and also know when and how to contract and save energy when conditions are truly inhospitable?

We are in one of those inhospitable times; perhaps the most inhospitable time many of us can remember in our lifetimes. Hunkered down alone or with only a few people, we are living in a reality of constant ambient threat (“the virus”) but also deprived of so many things: quotidian interactions that give us a sense of place and belonging; family and friendships that provide support, nourishment and enjoyment; usual forms of entertainment; special events to mark time; novelty; the energy of other human beings in our presence; work that is less stimulating even if more challenging; perhaps even predictability and stability. And of course, in mid-winter most of us are deprived of fresh air, sufficient sunlight (and vitamin D), and the natural movement of our bodies.

So, can human beings contract without shutting down completely? Can we find ways to surrender to the withdrawal that happens under experiences of chronic stress without turning against ourselves or each other? If we let go of the unrealistic expectation that we could be feeling so much better if only we (fill in the blank), might we experience this mid-winter period of our lives as slightly more bearable and circumscribed? Can we develop some gentleness toward our failure to “overcome” our circumstances?

One of the things the Coronavirus pandemic has reminded us of is our relationship to nature and our vulnerability to it. Nature also provides that certain animals hibernate or enter states of torpor in order to survive harsh weather environments. They go through profound metabolic changes to conserve energy and ensure survival. It is true that none of us can go to sleep for the winter. But perhaps metaphorically it is helpful to imagine that nature may have endowed people with capacities to take in less and to put out less when it is necessary for our psychic survival. If we think of this state as a kind of psychological hibernation[2] we might be less inclined to pathologize it or to fight it as if we could actually create the stimulation and possibilities that are available to us under other circumstances. If there is a season for everything, perhaps this time invites us to rest and let go of our need to turn reality into what it is not. If we allow for a certain psychological hibernation now, we might trust ourselves to welcome “spring” when it comes. Because it will come.

[1] Russell, E.M. (2015). Restoring Resilience: Discovering Your Clients’ Capacity for Healing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

[2] Term borrowed from Sandal, van deVijver, & Smith (2018): https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02235/full#B44

Psychologist, Mom, wife, writer; interested in human behavior, relationships, spirituality, creativity, and social justice

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