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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Crisis Fatigue? Metaphors Can Help

Photo by Ronnie George on Unsplash

Are you tired, exhausted, experiencing grief or even moments of hopelessness and despair? If so you are not alone. You may have hit the six-month wall and are experiencing crisis fatigue. I feel it, too. My intent is not to write another article about how to care for yourself in this time. The internet is full of these types of articles right now. Instead, I want to offer a simple way to give yourself a break through a simple practice using metaphors.

To help normalize what we are collectively experiencing, I’ll begin with some descriptions of crisis fatigue. In a recent Psychology Today article, Michael Pittaro observes that negative emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, disappointment, frustration, and uncertainty have sent our collective anxiety levels as a society to what feels like the point of no return.

Arianna Gallagher, a social worker and trauma specialist at Ohio State University, describes crisis fatigue as “a mixture of exhaustion, rage, disgust, despair, desperation, hypervigilance, anxiety and grief.” These symptoms are exacerbated right now because there is no immediate end in sight with COVID-19, the racial and political injustices, or the dire state of our U.S. economy.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the OSU Trauma Recovery Program identify four stages of crisis response: heroic, honeymoon, disillusionment, and fatigue:

  • Heroic Stage. The heroic stage occurs when individuals band together on the onset of a crisis to determine how to survive. Think of this stage as a “collective” surge of cortisol and adrenaline. Many scientists and psychiatrists believe that the heroic stage is ingrained from early human history in which homo sapiens banded together for survival against outside threats like predators or climate change.
  • Honeymoon Stage. The honeymoon stage is the reaction to initial success as well as the feel-good response that occurs when a person is a member of a community. Individuals in the honeymoon stage recognize that they are in the same “boat” as others and feel identity with others taking the same steps necessary for survival.
  • Disillusionment Stage. The disillusionment stage occurs when individuals begin to feel physically and emotionally exhausted. Scientists believe that crisis disillusionment is the result of a high allostatic load (hormonal overload) on the body. This stage is a particular risk for widespread crises that occur in phases or waves (such as pandemics). At this stage, hyper-vigilance can turn into irritation, rage, or despair.
  • Fatigue Stage. The final stage of crisis response is the crisis fatigue stage. By design, the human body cannot sustain high levels of cortisol and adrenaline for long periods of time, so the result is crash or burnout. This can cause a person to feel either triggered or withdrawn. Even more unsettling, crisis fatigue can also result in pessimism and meaninglessness. This mental state makes it more likely for people to engage in risky behaviors detrimental to themselves or others.

In a helpful podcast, Dr. Aisha Ahmad assures us that the stages of disillusionment and fatigue stages are normal at about six months and also temporary. This period of exhaustion and despair generally lasts typically 4 to 6 weeks.

A Simple, Spiritual Practice

Instead of more advice on taking care of yourself or casting a prediction about the future, I would like to offer a simple practice that I learned as a psychotherapist and have used as a congregational consultant over the years. This practice is related to something I learned early on about mental separation—a sort of healthy compartmentalizing to provide psychological escape from emotional intensity and trauma.

A metaphor is something regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, especially something abstract. Our scriptures and traditions are full of such metaphors. A commonly used metaphor in Christian and Jewish traditions during times like these is the story of the Exodus with forty years of wandering in the wilderness before arriving at the Promised Land.

In my mid-20s, I went through a major life transition which felt more like an existential crisis. In the language developed twenty years ago by William Bridges, I was in the neutral zone—“that in-between state so full of uncertainty and confusion that simply coping with it takes most of one’s energy.” I was overwhelmed and freaked out. Some parts of my life were ending but I had no idea where I was going. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff.

One day, rather spontaneously and unexpectedly, I had an image of myself sitting in the middle of a staircase not knowing if I was going up or down. It was a dark staircase and I felt afraid, anxious, and alone. While I was not mature enough back then to know what I was doing, I decided to embrace that image and to live with it for a while. Every day I would bring that metaphor to mind and simply notice it without interpretation and without forcing it to go someplace.

After several days I started noticing changes in the metaphor. One day I realized I was not alone on that staircase. I had friends who would come and visit me or bring me food and sit with me. I noticed that the image of a staircase was much less frightening than the image of standing on the edge of a cliff. Some days I grieved profoundly while sitting on the stairs and other days the staircase seemed brighter. After several weeks I noticed, much to my surprise, that I was no longer sitting on those stairs.

The Power of Metaphors

I realize that not everyone naturally thinks this abstractly. However, there are many benefits of using metaphors:

  • Metaphors can function like a container that allows us to hold together powerful and complex emotions.
  • Metaphors provide some order to the internal chaos that we are experiencing.
  • Metaphors can be grounding. They can keep us from freaking out.
  • Metaphors change as we change so they provide mile markers along the way. This gives us hope that change is occurring.

It’s difficult to force a metaphor into being. It’s best to practice a state of openness to the arrival of a metaphor as a gift. The most powerful metaphors are the ones that are more like an Ah-ha or realization. They usually come spontaneously when we least expect them to arrive.

Give yourself some interrupted time to sit quietly. Begin by noticing your breathing and then allow whatever is inside of you to just be there. As you relax, try to practice letting go and surrendering to What Is—to the Spirit or a Higher Power. If this becomes too overwhelming, then it would be best to find a psychotherapist to join you on your journey. If it’s not too overwhelming, then keep up this practice of checking in every day and keep noticing. Most of the time, a metaphor will eventually emerge. I’ve led this practice with groups who are going through challenging times, and the metaphors that emerge provide a kind of roadmap for our work together.

As you are in this relaxed state of noticing, you might ask yourself:

  • Does this time of transition remind me of anything I have experienced in the past?
  • How would I begin a fairy tale about this moment in time? “Once upon a time…”
  • Where do I feel anything in my body? Place your hand over that area and just notice what comes to you.
  • As a congregation, what story from our history, tradition, or scriptures resonates or connects with the present time?

While we still have a long way to go in our work of racial reckoning, surviving the pandemic, and weathering our economic and political crises, we have already survived much. Along the way we can grow and change, both individually and collectively, and learn new ways of coping.

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

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