When we encounter a stressful situation which takes time to resolve, we tend to reach back to coping strategies learned in childhood.
This reminds me of the title of Jenny TeGrotenhuis’ recent article on the John Gottman blog – “Under stress we all regress.”
There is nothing wrong with coping strategies per se. The problem is when they were devised by a much younger and less informed version of ourselves. They may have worked well for a while in reducing anxiety and creating a sense of safety:
- The 3 year old who cries inconsolably until allowed in her parents’ bed for the rest of the night.
- The 5-year old that hides away in the attic when Granny shouts at her.
- The 7-year old who recovers ownership of his toy by delivering well targeted blows.
- Food as a powerful source of comfort runs in families and is often passed on from one generation to another.
Other triggers for old coping mechanisms could be illness, feeling tired, experiencing intense emotions or even a drop in blood sugar levels.
The current pandemic creates the perfect conditions for regression. In addition to the potential reasons I listed, there is also the loss of control over our wider environment and activities. Just as in childhood, our sense of agency can be limited by the stay-at-home policies meant to protect us.
If this is something that you are recognising in yourself or the people around you, please, try not to be too harsh on yourself or on them right now.
It is important to understand that this response is normal and to anticipate the critical voice that tells you that you or they ought to know better. “Oughts” and “shoulds” are rarely useful. In fact, I make a point of saying to clients early on in our work, that “oughts” and “shoulds” are not allowed in the therapy room. They act as brakes on something that needs to keep moving if we are to get anywhere. They block the spirit of investigative curiosity that helps us to understand what is going on under the surface.
Perhaps this unusual and extraordinary time is a time for you to take an interest in what is beneath the surface of you.