Collins Dictionary named “permacrisis” the word of the year for 2022. In short, it means “an extended period of instability and insecurity.”
After all we’ve gone through this year — COVID variants, mass shootings, the war in Ukraine and more — you probably find that definition relatable. You may have experienced hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness, grief and a host of other tough emotions over the last 12 months.
Even one of those traumas is a lot to handle, let alone multiple. In case you need help juggling everything, experts explained more about this phenomenon and how to cope.
What A Permacrisis Looks Like
Our brains were designed to notice any sign of danger, whether that be physical, emotional or social. And our reaction is where the common term “fight or flight” (which also includes “fawn” and “freeze”) comes in. The continuation of that response can lead to a permacrisis.
“With issues of permacrisis, your body is constantly engaging your alarm systems, pumping your body full of the necessary hormones to respond to threat with very little to no reprieve,” said Tyler Keith, a licensed clinical social worker from Thriveworks in Wilmington, North Carolina, who specializes in anxiety, trauma and PTSD. “As a result, your body begins to develop wear and tear, like that of a car with high mileage.”
This can lead to a slew of symptoms. He mentioned high blood pressure, sleeping too little or too much, muscle tension, fidgeting, brain fog, feeling emotionally numb, exhaustion, endlessly scrolling social media, not enjoying hobbies and relationships as much as you used to, and more.
You may also find yourself quiet quitting, “which translates to stepping away from work responsibilities and seeking ‘quality of life pursuits,’” said Courtney Strull, a therapist with The Montfort Group in Dallas, Texas. “COVID, in many ways, was the start of this, as it made people realize that we need better work/life balance.”
While it’s generally best to be proactive about maintaining your mental health, is there a point when a permacrisis is an issue you’re struggling with and need to address intentionally? Keith said yes, describing it as experiencing symptoms “more frequently than not over the duration of a month.” Otherwise, your mental and physical health could deteriorate more, decreasing life satisfaction and potentially leading to suicidal thoughts.
Can You Experience A Permacrisis If Your Life Is Going Just Fine?
You may relate to those symptoms but wonder why. Maybe your family is healthy, you’re not living in the midst of a war and you have a stable job. Or maybe there are other positive aspects of your life you’re thankful for... and you’re still struggling.
One potential cause is you’re experiencing a different kind of trauma or stress. “Permacrisis may lead to what is known as secondary traumatic stress: the indirect trauma that can occur when we are exposed to difficult or disturbing images and stories secondhand,” said Christine Coleman, a licensed psychotherapist, speaker, consultant and executive coach specializing in the intersection of mental health and diversity, equity and inclusion.
Collective trauma, which deals with trauma our entire society is affected by, is another possible option, she added.
Regardless, give yourself compassion and understanding. It’s important to validate that it’s OK to struggle even when your life has improved, or when it’s better than some other people’s, or when some would say the pandemic is “over.” Emotions don’t always make perfect sense, but judging them isn’t helpful.
Tips For Coping With A Permacrisis
So you know it’s time to work on your well-being, but here’s the dilemma: Many of the issues contributing to a permacrisis — chronic health conditions, sick family members, recessions, political unrest and more — are, unfortunately, out of your control. What can you do?
Keith suggested focusing on managing your response to those things while holding onto hope. “Inevitably, time will pass and these conditions will change or you will acquire the skills and/or resources to address their impact on your mental health,” he said.
Here are some of those skills and resources:
Build and maintain your social network.
Whether you turn to family, friends, your church community or another group, don’t neglect your relationships. “Finding spaces where you are offered validation and empathy can be extremely affirming to give you space to deal with expressing your challenges in a healthy manner,” Keith said. “Make sure you build relationships that exercise healthy boundaries and respect during these times.”
And remember, while it’s crucial to have people you can turn to when you feel upset, it’s a good idea to do fun things with these loved ones, too. Plan activities and outings. Send each other memes or do whatever else you connect over and enjoy.
Do the opposite of what you want to do.
You know those days when you want to just lie in bed alone, but you know you should do something with people? While it’s OK (and good!) to engage in the former at times, challenge yourself to step out of that, too.
“Another common tip I provide is to do the opposite of what we feel like doing,” Coleman said. “This often helps when all we want to do is doomscroll, for example, but what we really should do is take a break and go outside or dance in our room for 10 minutes.” This can help you be more present, she explained.
This is a dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, skill called “opposite action,” which helps people respond to emotions in more helpful ways.
Take care of your physical health and hygiene.
Ah yes, we’re talking about the little (and sometimes annoying) things that add up and make a big difference, such as eating regularly, sleeping enough, moving your body in ways you enjoy, brushing your teeth, doing laundry, practicing deep breathing ― all that stuff.
“Taking care of your physical health is the first step of taking care of your mental health during long-term periods of stress that are out of your control,” Keith said.
Limit negativity as much as possible.
As hard as it can be, you may need to turn off news notifications and unfollow toxic social media accounts ― or at least put your phone down more often. “Limit exposure to the information [and] think about how much is sensible,” said Jenna Vyas-Lee, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of Kove, a mental health care platform in London. “Watching the news all day is not necessary and is likely to reinforce the negative messaging you’re receiving.”
Studies back this advice. “Research indicates that individuals susceptible to anxiety tend to report increased levels of anxiety amidst increased usage of social media and news,” Strull said.
But what about negative input that’s hard to avoid, like a sick parent or grandparent you need to take care of? Don’t be afraid to reach out for help — for yourself and for them — and try to incorporate more fun activities and relaxation in your schedule when you can.
Try new hobbies and relaxation methods.
On that note, what can you look forward to at the end of the day? “Dive into new hobbies and/or interests to try, and develop varying ways to engage in leisure, fun and self-expression,” Keith said. “These activities help provide brief escapes.”
Examples might include word searches, getting crafty, reading in a bubble bath, writing cards, trying a sport, ice skating, visiting a new coffee shop, practicing yoga or something entirely different.
Make a difference.
Here comes another dialectical behavior therapy practice: contributing, one of the Cs in the ACCEPTS skill set, which lays out strategies for coping with difficult emotions. In other words, get proactive about helping others.
“Join or start a movement to help those directly affected by tragedy,” Coleman said. “Create awareness about the issues that speak powerfully to you.” Besides raising awareness, you can donate to organizations and vote, as a start.
Work with a therapist or similar professional.
“Last but not least, it is highly recommended that you seek professional support,” Keith said. “With many different platforms and approaches, take some time to figure out what financially works for you in exploring even short-term treatment.”
Ultimately, it all comes down to self-care. Vyas-Lee encouraged thinking “ACE”: achieve, connect, enjoy. “Engage in helpful, self-caring, adaptive, outward-looking behavior,” she said.