These days, I look a bit like a deer in headlights, standing in front of a speeding car. The deer is frozen on the spot, dazed and unable to decide whether it should run left or throw itself into the ditch to the right of the road.

I thought I was entering the COVID-19 pandemic, sitting quietly at my desk, doing my modest part in the hope that writing daily blog posts would help readers better manage their stress. I would then take the time to record my university course lectures and help my graduate students with their Master’s and Ph.D. work. I would do all of this while going for an occasional run and while walking my dog. A quiet life.

Then the requests started coming in. One group wants me to help them talk to young people about stress. Another group has asked me to help them set up ways to support parents caught up in the turmoil of COVID-19. Plus, all the health professionals are waiting for help to manage the enormous stress that now rests on their shoulders.

My e-mail keeps filling up and the high-pitched dings keep echoing in the small room in my house that I use as my office. I receive at least 5 to 10 requests for help from various organizations every day.

I want to help, but I’m starting to get a tummy ache from the stress. I recognize this old ‘friend’. He gets into my body and starts squeezing my insides, then makes himself comfortable in my head. Once he’s in my head, he starts activating the little hamster which begins its tireless refrain: “There’s too much to do, you won’t make it! There’s too much to do, you won’t make it!”

That famous hamster is well-known to people who are anxious. It’s the little voice in your head that keeps repeating the same messages over and over again. “It’s too difficult, you won’t pass the final exam. If I don’t get that contract, my career is over. I’m going to get COVID-19 and spread it to my children. What if my elderly father, who lives alone in a senior’s home, gets COVID-19?”

Anyway, this pernicious little beast is slowly starting to settle in my head. The rascal.

But the rodent doesn’t get on my nerves too much. In fact, I know he’s working to save my life. Nature didn’t put a hamster in our heads to make our lives hard and make us unhappy. No, a hamster wheel spinning in your head is nothing more than a brain that has detected a threat. And when that threat is has not been dealt with, the hamster starts its race to keep reminding us relentlessly that we have dealt with the stress in our lives. And it will continue to send us that message until we deal with the threat. Nice little system, don’t you think?

So here it is in my head again: “There’s too much to do, you won’t make it. There’s too much to do, you won’t make it”. OK. I have a stress that I have no yet dealt with. The stress of not having seen the wave of requests for help coming from just about every organization in Quebec! Novelty. Unpredictability. Threat to ego. Low sense of control. (“I won’t make it, I’ll disappoint”). The four ingredients of stress combined in a single situation. Big mammoth J

How did I recognize my stressor so quickly when the hamster was set off? Easy. I paid attention to what the hamster was trying tell me instead of trying to shut him off. What is this famous rodent trying to tell me? What message is my brain trying to send me? Each time, when I let the little hamster talk, he would say: “Too much to do, you won’t succeed”, “Too much to do, you won’t succeed”. So, that’s the source of my stress.

Thank you, hamster. Now I know why my stomach hurts and why I haven’t been sleeping well these days. Time for action. I have deconstructed my stressor with NUTS (the 4 characteristics of stress; Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to ego and Low sense of control) and now I will rebuild it to increase my sense of control over the situation and thus decrease my stress response.

What can I do to make the situation less novel? Simple. Accept the fact that the next few weeks will not go as planned and that all the work on my scientific studies that I promised myself that I would complete, will have to be put aside in order to best respond to the various requests I have received to participate in knowledge transfer activities. This is new, and it’s OK. I understand that. Check.

What can I do to make the situation less unpredictable? I’m going to try to set aside 90 minutes a day to respond to unforeseen demands. If they occur on a given day, then I’ll know I have time to manage them. If I don’t have any unforeseen events on that day, I will have an extra 90 minutes to walk my dog. Check.

What can I do to make the situation less of a threat to my ego? I accept the fact that, although I have promised many people and organizations that I will help to them control the stress that their teams are experiencing (it’s stressful trying to be a superhero!), I will not be able to meet the demand alone. Humility is an evil weapon to fight stress. I need help. I won’t be able to do it alone and I admit it. I will, therefore, call in my wonderful students, some of whom have become research scientists and others are still under my supervision. I will share this new ‘spotlight’ in stress expertise, with them. Dr. Marie-France Marin, a specialist in traumatic memory and the effects of trauma on the human brain. Dr. Pierrich Plusquellec, a specialist in non-verbal behaviours associated with stress and emotion. Catherine Raymond, a student of mine completing her Ph.D. on the effects of adversity on memory and emotion regulation, and our newest Ph.D. student, Audrey-Ann Journault, who is beginning her study on performance anxiety in children and adolescents. Together, we will be able to meet the demand and help as many people as possible to successfully manage their stress. I contacted them and they all answered the call within a quarter of a second. Check.

What can I do to increase my sense of control over this situation? I need to gather the troops to properly assess and respond to the demands and ensure that I provide quality information to people who need to manage their stress. I will organize a meeting with my new team and develop a plan of attack. We will have a lot of things to provide to people and medical professionals in the days to come. I have more control over the situation. Check.

Everything should be fine. My stress has been deconstructed with the four characteristics of the NUTS model and rebuilt with action plans for each characteristic. My hamster should stop. Phew.

I am contemplating about writing a blog post to teach people how to deconstruct and rebuild their stress using the NUTS model. It could help them a lot.

I sit at my desk and wait. Will the hamster come back to haunt my mind? A minute goes by. Five minutes go by. Ah! There it comes again! Bad boy! What’s he still doing here? I’m listening to him. “You’re not in control. You have the knowledge, but you don’t have the means to communicate it. You don’t have the control. You have the knowledge, but not the means to communicate it.”

That is true. Thanks to my brilliant scientific team, we’re accumulating plenty of knowledge to help people deal with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there is a serious risk that we may not have the means to communicate it. How can I develop beautiful stress posters for young people when I don’t even know how to draw a stickman and we don’t have the budget to do that? How can I drive information on different social networks when I have trouble even working my own Facebook page? Once again, I need to increase my sense of control over this aspect of the problem.

Once more, I tell myself that humility is an evil weapon to fight stress. No, we researchers don’t necessarily have the talent to communicate our knowledge through various visual, television and other medias. So, if I need help in this area, I will reach out to the public and ask for their help. Amongst all our virtual friends on our various social media platforms, there must be artists who can design beautiful posters to describe stress to young people, there must be TV or internet celebrities who can create video capsules with our words to explain stress to health professionals, there must be people who can help drive our information on stress via various social networks. All these wonderful talents are out there. I feel it and I know it. So, when the time comes, I will know how to ask for help in order to communicate our knowledge. I tell myself that people will answer the call.

I sit at my desk. My hamster has calmed down. Will it come back? Is there any part of this stressor that I didn’t manage properly?

No. It’s gone.

I’ll probably sleep better tonight.

I know it’ll probably come back in the next few days or weeks, but that’s OK, because I know how to deal with the beast.

Besides, I have a lot of friends

From Sonia Lupien, PhD., Director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress

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