During a check-in with my staff where our employees were getting things off their chests, one woman remarked, “I need to get off this struggle bus.” And I feel like that’s such a perfect metaphor for what so many of us are feeling right now.
The pandemic brought a bunch of changes. We’re more than two years into it now, and the workforce and state of the world just keep changing.
It’s like, we’re on the bus, the door is shut, the windows are closed, it keeps moving forward, the wheels on the bus go round and round — and we can’t get off. And while we might have been able to ride it for a while, we can’t fake it anymore.
We’re not designed for this much chaos. Many of us are struggling and worn out. That’s why we’re making decisions to change jobs or leave relationships. We’re trying to throw everything at the wall in hope that something will stick, and actually get the bus to stop.
In reality, we’re not thinking clearly because our resources are running low, and our brains weren’t built for this type of enduring crisis state. Thankfully, though, with a bit of knowledge about our brains and some quick tips, you can find some relief.
Your Brain is Struggling Through a Stress Response
Humans are resilient, and we can deal with short-term or minor changes. In fact, changes like these can spark creativity and growth. But, when there’s a dramatic change over an extended period (like a pandemic), our brains can’t handle it. Massive, enduring changes cause us to consume energy at an exponential rate.
This means we’re consuming more energy and aren’t refilling our energy reserves (aka our “fuel tanks”). When our brains sense that we’re using too much energy, we go into fight or flight mode, which makes everyday life much harder. These changes have caused our brains and bodies to be stressed. When we’re stressed, our bodies produce a chemical called cortisol. Too much cortisol over an extended period can have a lot of negative effects on the body, but it can also affect our brains.
Cortisol curbs functions that aren’t essential (like creativity, problem-solving, etc.) so the body can focus on survival. With so much cortisol pumping through our bodies, we can’t always see simple solutions that are right in front of us (like the escape hatch on the roof of the bus).
The part of our brain called the amygdala plays a significant role in how these situations affect us. The amygdala learns and predicts, and it expects things to be how they’ve always been. Say the amygdala recognizes something as negative, it will continue to see things as negative. The more we focus on the negative or the struggle, the more the amygdala “predicts” negative emotions, and we can get caught in that cycle.
This amygdala “filter” could be why bad mornings lead to bad days. It only recognizes the cycle of negativity and keeps us in that cycle. This is known as an amygdala hijack, and it likely contributes to the reason why it feels like we can’t get off the “struggle bus.”
It also explains why some people let a dropped cup of coffee ruin their day, while others just clean up the mess and carry on with their day. The state of our amygdala determines a lot about how we interact with our environment and interpret stressful situations.
3 Tips to Override The Amygdala Hijack
But then, how do we actually get off the struggle bus? Start with these 3 steps.
1. Choose your focus
When you notice you’re struggling, pick something to focus on other than your struggle. It can be anything that produces positive energy: a bright sunny day, your last vacation, walking your dog — whatever makes you feel positive.
You might have to make yourself focus on that positive spot fifty times a minute at first, but keep redirecting your mind. You can’t change your brain by doing something one time. It takes small, simple repeated reminders to retrain your amygdala to focus on the positive instead of the struggle.
2. Find a bus warden!
We all need help sometimes. You don’t have to get off the bus by yourself. Get yourself a bus warden, aka a friend who can check in with you. It can be a daily check-in, or it can be irregular. Either way, the goal is to find someone you can call and just chat about fun things with for a few minutes (no drama allowed during these chats!).
We’re trying to train our brains to focus on positive energies. The amygdala keeps us thinking small, so we need to move into the rest of our brain to get us out of the cycle. Talking to a friend about good things every once in a while can help break that cycle.
3. Start or increase a mindfulness practice
There’s so much research about mindfulness. Some people feel like it’s too “new-age” or hokey, but developing mindfulness has been scientifically proven to decrease cortisol levels and help with amygdala reactivity. It also creates new neural pathways that will continue to grow and strengthen.
Mindfulness allows you to choose your thinking. It’s a lifelong pursuit, though. Even Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön says she sometimes still struggles with mindfulness even though she’s been practicing it for decades. Mindfulness takes practice, but it puts you in the driver’s seat of that bus, allowing you to take it over and drive it where you want it to go — away from the struggle.
Get Off the Struggle Bus for Good
Our brains weren’t made for what we’ve had to endure over the last couple of years. But you can get yourself off the struggle bus and move forward with optimism. It just takes a bit of brain retraining to get there. If you’re on the struggle bus and you can’t find a way off, learn how to put yourself back in the driver’s seat with our REFUEL! Program.