Tips + Techniques

Does the Pandemic Have You in a Rut? You’re Not Alone

April 30, 2020

By Katch Silva

© Katch Silva

This is the second article in a series on mental health, mindfulness, productivity and the work/life balance for creatives—particularly amid self-isolation from COVID-19 as we learn to cope with life in a global pandemic. If you haven’t already, do your brain a favor and read the first article on why you should beware the productivity hustle. Next, she covers how to break negative habits and thought patterns.

So, it’s week X of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order. You’ve got a full to-do list and so much “free time.” You’ve got piles of emails to respond to, projects you finally have time for, a mountain of tasks to keep your small business afloat (or your financials), a dozen books you can’t wait to start reading, a long list of self-improvement practices to add to your routine and an empty social calendar. 

But instead, you feel like you’re trudging through a thick soup of restlessness: peeling your body out of bed, scrolling mindlessly on Instagram, attempting to keep up with the news, realizing that was a mistake, filling up on carbs, feeling stuck and, ultimately, binge-watching Netflix. A glimpse at your to-do list immediately invokes overwhelming stress and relentless self-criticism. You sit at your desk, or grab your camera, in hopes that something will spark. But it’s useless. You feel like you’re avoiding your responsibilities. Or perhaps avoiding yourself. But your self contempt is unavoidable.

illustration on being overwhelmed by donnie wilson for katch silva
Illustrations by Donnie Wilson for Katch Silva

“Why am I so lazy??”

“Why can’t I just suck it up and get things done?”

“What is wrong with me?”

There is nothing wrong with you. What you’re experiencing is the freeze component of your nervous system’s fight-flight-freeze response, which evolved to help our ancestors react quickly when facing danger. Of course, you’re not faced with lions and bears to fight or flee from, but your limbic system—the part of your brain where emotions are processed—doesn’t know that. You’re facing a global pandemic that is constantly threatening your way of life. COVID-19 may as well be a big lion-bear-virus pounding at your front door daily. 

Your paralysis is natural, it isn’t your fault, and it’s out of your own control. So stop trying to fight or control it, and start being kinder to yourself, okay?

The Neurology of Your Rut

A basic understanding of your neurological processes can help you take control of your well-being. If you can name and understand what’s happening inside your brain, you can learn to work with it instead of against it. So let’s start with a quick lesson on physiology.

Your autonomic nervous system is made up of two branches: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PNS). The SNS urges your body towards action (fight or flight), while the PNS brings about an absolute inhibition of action (freeze). So that thick soup you’re trying to move in? That’s your freeze response.

This means that freezing isn’t a passive state, but rather a strong break on your very active motor systems. You’re experiencing a bizarre mix of physiological activity and hormone release where one branch is screaming “Act! Do something!” and the other is firmly saying “No! Don’t move a muscle.”

fight flight or freeze illustration by donnie wilson for katch silva

So why can’t you just deal with it and tell your nervous system to chill out? Where is your rationality, motivation and will power during all of this?

Your logical brain is blissfully unaware and forcibly shut off. In survival mode, the logical reasoning area of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) temporarily goes offline. This is the area in charge of higher mammalian functions, like future planning, abstract thinking, decision-making, self-control, behavior inhibition and other social cognitive abilities. That’s precisely why you can’t focus on anything right now, even something as simple as planning for next week. It’s not your fault! You’re not broken!

Phew. Good to know.

Why It’s Okay to Do Nothing Right Now

So, now you find yourself suddenly thrown into survival mode in which your body’s homeostasis is thrown completely off balance. This overwhelmed internal landscape brings about all the emotions you’ve been feeling: restlessness, sadness, anger, frustration, self-contempt—the list goes on.

We need to realize that the massive amount of mental energy our brains are spending trying to suppress our emotions is extremely damaging to our mental health. Emotions aren’t inherently bad, and our nervous system is merely attempting to help promote behavior that will bring us back to homeostasis. So, what can we do?

First, we need to listen to our bodies and let them play out their natural response to stress—whether that’s action (fight/flight) or inaction (freeze). This means actually doing what our bodies want us to do—working with instead of against them. If our bodies can’t complete their natural stress response, our brains continue to release stress hormones and sound the threat alarm. This can lead to dissociation and post-traumatic stress.

We’re experiencing a global trauma unprecedented in our lifetimes—and these simple practices may prevent our current emotional states from leaving permanent emotional scars. This is really important.

So for now, stop forcing yourself to be productive all the time. Stop doing for a little while and just be instead. Allow your body to freeze when it can’t go on: eat, sleep, zone out, recover. And know that it’s okay. You’re not lazy, you’re not broken, and you’re not going to be stuck in paralysis forever.

That feels impossible sometimes when I’m anxious to get stuff done. I also have too many responsibilities to just sit around… How do I know when it’s time to get back into it? It’s all too overwhelming!

Slow down. That drive to continuously problem-solve is part of the issue, remember? Adding anxious thoughts into an already overwhelmed system is only going to make it worse, and your body and brain can’t rest if you’re constantly in your head about what comes next.

So for now, just slow down. Allow your body to return to homeostasis. Indulge, forgive yourself, and most importantly, stop being so dang hard on yourself. Your body carries the weight of mental hardship, and bodily sensations are the basis for emotions. It might seem paradoxical, but research has shown this to be true. So if you think the only way to deal with emotions or mental discomfort is through thinking, internal analysis and conscious planning, you’re mistaken.

Becoming closely aware of what your physical body is experiencing—and what it needs—is paramount to managing emotions, and improving mental and physical health.

That’s why mindfulness practice is so important: Research shows that mindfulness improves your ability to tune in to your body, through strengthening parts of the prefrontal cortex. (I’ll write about how to better practice mindfulness later in the series!)

Obviously, I’m not suggesting you should neglect your responsibilities in order to chill out. Remember my previous article? It’s about doing the work you need to do without over-exerting your nervous system, without forgetting what you’re working for in the first place. You don’t need to do it all or have it all in order to find life-enjoyment and well-being.

I’ll keep coming back to this because it’s so important: Your priorities define what you—and by that I mean your hard-working brain—spend the most time and effort on. If well-being for you and your loved ones is priority, then every decision you make should promote well-being, both physical and emotional.

illustration on what to do when you're feeling stuck by donnie wilson for katch silva

How to Get Unstuck

Here are some practical ideas to work with your nervous system and allow your body to complete the cycle when you’re feeling stuck. Just listen to your body. If you feel you’ve got extra nervous energy running through your tense muscles, then the fight/flight section below is all you. If you feel completely drained of physical and mental energy, and it feels like you can’t even concentrate, then try the freeze section below that.

If you feel completely overwhelmed right now, and just can’t even, do this first:

  1. Sit in a quiet spot or put headphones in with calm nature sounds.
  2. Breathe in for 4 seconds, hold it for 4 seconds, and breath out for 4 seconds. Repeat this a few times, until your body feels a little more settled.
  3. Start to play close attention to your body using your five senses.
  4. Try listening to this 1-minute meditation, or this 9-minute meditation, both from Headspace. If you’ve never meditated before, those links include really good instruction too.
  5. Let out a big, heavy, loud *SIGH*
  6. When you feel ready, try the lists below.


This is what happens in your body and brain when faced with threat: Adrenaline is released, heart rate and blood pressure increase as your muscles prepare for action, breathing quickens, senses sharpen, glucose gets released to give you energy to act, and pain suppression increases.

  • Go for a run around the neighborhood (remember to wear a mask and stay 6 feet apart!).
  • Punch a pillow, repeatedly (or invest in a punching bag).
  • Scream into a pillow, or put on music from your hardcore days and scream-sing in the shower.
  • Have a dance party—bonus points if it’s a dance party with a friend on FaceTime.
  • Play an active game like charades.
  • Exercise, do cardio—make use of that adrenaline somehow!
  • Clean the house. It sounds weird, but cleaning can be soothing when your brain is in action mode.
  • Jump rope. It’s fun!
  • Drum. Don’t have drums? Use kitchen utensils and some pillows. Or just a stool as bongos.


Your brain and body react the same as fight and flight, with an added suppression of motor processes, among a few other things. Keep in mind, all of this operates on a spectrum, and depending how deep into freeze mode you are, you may not be physically capable of doing some of the suggestions below. That’s okay. If you feel completely paralyzed by stress or anxiety, try the first few first:

  • Take several deep breaths—4 seconds in, hold for 4 seconds, 4 seconds out, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat. (I’ll write more on why and how this works later.)
  • Watch TV.
  • Take a nap.
  • Scroll through interesting, positive content (such as a cute animals Reddit or a silly cat Instagram account. Suggestions: @animalsdoingthings, @cats_of_instagram, @ifyouhigh, @sciencesetfree, @goodnews_movement, @grapejuiceboys,
  • Do a mindful activity, like mindful eating or walking. This requires complete focus on the activity, using all your senses and being present (more instruction on this later).
  • Listen to calm music, a podcast or an audio book.
  • Do light yoga, with a focus on slow movement and breathing.
  • Go for a slow walk around the block or around the house.
  • Experience gratitude. Think about everything you have to be grateful for. Write it down. If you can’t think of anything: The mere fact that you’re reading this sentence on your device puts you in a position that many people would envy.
  • Connect with friends and family online (Zoom, FaceTime, etc).

Next week, I’ll be sharing my personal experience with hardship, trauma and PTSD, and it’ll become clear why I’ve decided to write this series of articles. I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but through years of study, insight and therapy, I’ve learned to pay close attention to my physiology and my internal landscape in order to better deal with difficult emotions and states of mind.

I hope to take you on a journey through my past, some basic psychology and neuroscience, a few dark parts of my own brain, mindfulness, happiness research, and a little bit of secular (evidence-based) Buddhism, with two objectives in mind: First, I believe that we’d all benefit greatly from openly sharing our experiences, particularly with often stigmatized topics such as mental illness and personal hardships. Sharing the dark parts of ourselves that we so often try to hide from each other will help us realize that we have more in common than we realize, and it’ll break down barriers that often make us feel alone and fragmented.

Secondly, I want to share the knowledge and practices I’ve learned because they’ve made an enormous difference in my personal well-being and overall life satisfaction. I just can’t keep it to myself, okay?


Katch Silva is a wedding photographer and a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2015. She has a psychology degree, and a mathematics degree, from the University of Pennsylvania. After living and shooting on the road in a van for three years, she settled in 29 Palms, CA, where she lives with her partner and two kittens. She has spent the last 10 years attempting to draw out and capture her couple’s genuine nature on camera. Psychology, the human mind, and our shared biology with the rest of nature are her biggest motivations and inspirations for both art and education, and she strives to share the knowledge she has gained through research, self exploration and therapy so that everyone may benefit. Her education can be found at