From my column in Body+Soul
Question: I was wondering if you could help me reconnect with my husband as we’re both super stressed from this bushfire season. We live on the South Coast of NSW and our house has been extremely close to the bushfires – over the summer we’ve been evacuated a few times. We’ve been in a state of high stress for a couple of months now, and it’s taken a big toll on our relationship. It feels like my husband has switched to survival mode and can’t or won’t switch back, so there’s no room for emotional or physical intimacy. Is this normal? What can I do?
Answer: I’m sorry to hear the bushfires have had such a big impact on you. Being on high alert for so long, and so repeatedly is terribly stressful. In times of crisis our emotional, mental and physical resources automatically go into survival mode. We are totally switched on and focused, we are fully up-regulated with our sympathetic nervous system pumping. Adrenaline floods our body, our heart rate goes up, our air passages expand, our whole being is primed for fight, flight or freeze.
At times like these, when all our resources are directed towards survival, it is very normal that we aren’t feeling romantic, relaxed, chilled. We’re in the opposite state.
Our bodies aren’t designed to stay in that intense stress for long though. If we do, we continue to produce stress hormones and are more likely to suffer from poor thinking, poor sleep, anxiety and illness, and in time total overwhelm and exhaustion. The crisis has to be resolved and our nervous system and physiology return to a normal relaxed state.
How do we do that? Well, we are a communal species, and one of the key ways we survive crises is through banding together in cooperative ways to support each other.
We’ve seen this during the bushfire crisis in so many ways – our volunteer firefighters risking their own lives to save others, people helping their neighbours, people saving pets, livestock and our native fauna, not to mention the outpouring of support from the broader community. I know that two single friends of mine who both lost their homes in the bushfires have been astounded at the support they have received within their communities.
Having that support network is an important way to overcome the stress of crisis situations, as my friends are finding. But being single, there is one ‘support network’ they can’t access, and that’s the support of a life partner.
Our significant other is the person who can regulate our nervous system and calm us more than any other (that same person can also disregulate our nervous system more than any other, but that’s another story). The touch of our beloved, their words, their attention, their time, all contribute to feeling calm and secure, removing our bodies from crisis mode. And, of course, we can do this together, so that we are co-regulating our nervous systems and calming each other.
So, to return to your situation. When a bushfire is bearing down on you and you are escaping for your lives, at that time you will be in crisis mode and you need to do all you can to survive. Let your bodies’ natural responses of intense focus, hyper-alertness, and all the accompanying physiological processes kick in to action so that you survive. Then, when you are out of danger, that is the time to recover, to get out of crisis mode, and to use your connection to help you return to a healthier, less-stressed state.
How you do that will depend on you as individuals and as a couple. The key thing is to ensure you pay attention to each other and that you use words and touch for comfort and security. There are so many strong emotions that arise in these situations that it’s important to share them with your partner. Have a cup of tea together and talk about how each of you are feeling, just share, there’s no need to ‘fix’. Or lie with one person’s head in the other lap and gently stroke your partner as they speak, or let them lie there and simply receive the touch. Have lots of hugs. Express your appreciation and gratitude. Give each other shoulder rubs to relieve the tension. Sex might not be at the forefront of mind in times like this, but don’t exclude it. If you engage in these other connecting activities, you might find you do naturally move into tender sexual activity, which can be both stress-relieving and bonding.
In a nutshell, do what humans have always done in times of crisis – support each other. Use the love you have for each other to help ‘reset’ your mind and body once the intense crisis is past and return to calm, connectedness.