It all started last weekend. I was out on my nature strip digging up clumps of mangy grass and weeds, and sticking in cuttings of geraniums and succulents and agapanthus.
A friend drove by and leaned out the window and asked ‘What do you call this?!’ Cheeky bugger! ‘It’s an exercise in optimism’ I told him. And it turns out my optimism was well-placed! It was a sunny morning, and people were out walking their dogs or getting their exercise. Most of them I didn’t know, but they paused to say an encouraging word, and 3 of them returned with cuttings from their own gardens.
Here we all are in lockdown, and at times like this, when it would be easy to use the excuse of social distancing to just keep walking past, people actually reached out and connected. And my conclusion is this: that under pressure, nice people usually get nicer.
Isn’t it interesting, watching how people behave under stress? During the last few weeks, as the pressure and anxiety in our community have increased, it seems to me that people are falling into 2 main camps. I’ve come across people queuing outside shops who didn’t make eye contact or glared suspiciously at me when I joined the line. And then there are those who offer a smile or a greeting, and try to be helpful and pleasant in some small way.
Would it be fair to say the opposite it true too, that nasty people get nastier?
In most cases, I don’t think that’s the case. We can understand their behaviour by understanding about how the brain works when we’re stressed or fearful.
When we’re stressed or anxious or fearful, the Stress Response is activated. This is an important and really helpful response, designed to keep us safe and out of danger, and it’s also known as Fight or Flight or Freeze.
If there’s a danger (real or imagined), then the body releases stress hormones so that we can survive, by either running away, standing our ground and fighting, or freezing. It’s a powerful effect for extreme situations, which hopefully we survive and then life goes back to normal. At the moment, we don’t know how long we’re going to be dealing with a world changed by Coronavirus so many people are trying to manage their emotions and stress levels over a longer period. And it doesn’t seem to bring out the best in some people … They’re operating as if it’s them against the world, and find it hard to be pleasant or friendly, because the stress hormones increase the part of the brain that triggers feelings of fear and aggression, and shuts off the parts of the brain that regulate healthy social behaviour and clear thinking.
So when someone gave me the evil eye yesterday outside a shop, I still smiled warmly at her, because I figure she’s probably feeling stressed and so isn’t able to be her best self. Maybe she’s worried about someone she loves, or going crazy at home with her partner and kids …
And it’s worth remembering that one of the pillars of wellbeing is social connectedness, so connecting with just a smile or a few words is good for us, and it brightens up someone else’s day too.
I recently sent this blog out as an email to my mailing list, as a way of supporting them at the moment with ways of staying healthy and sane, while we all self-isolate.
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