Community, Hope

Turning off Fight or Flight

This morning I woke up thinking about the coming spring. I know we’ll have more snow, and I don’t dislike winter, but days are already lengthening, birds are chirping, and I can’t help but feel my spirits lifting. Born and raised in the northeast, I’m especially attuned to the changing seasons, feeling each one with joyous anticipation and embracing the patterns of life they bring. Spring means more outdoors, which I love; it also means the mad dash from midterms to commencement, which is also exhilarating. These are happy days, indeed.

Then it dawned on me that it was at this time three years ago that we got our first glimpse of the pandemic. It was late February 2020, when I was contacted regarding our students abroad and whether they should come home (they did). Shortly thereafter, we had to cancel the spring break trips of our athletes (trips where they launch their season), which was a precursor to the lost seasons to follow. Then going home for spring break turned into going remote for the rest of the semester, with students and faculty tossed into the deep end of online education, and the rest of us trying to figure out how to run everything else remotely. We pivoted to emergency conditions that lasted for way too long.

Like everyone in leadership roles, I felt a heavy responsibility in a cloud of uncertainty. The ongoing work of making decisions that focused on safety and preserving learning was high stress, high energy, and continuous. It was an endless feeling of urgency, fueled by adrenaline and sleepless nights. I was not unique in feeling that stress: every single person in this community was in a constant state of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear. We were fighting for our lives and livelihoods. There were moments of creativity, invention, and even excitement as we made things work, but we were in a state of high alert in the face of danger.

And it didn’t end with that moment when we finally felt we could take off our masks and get back to something more like normal education. The fallout from COVID-19 is still a big part of our lives. Everyone is navigating enrollment impacts that will be with us for several more years, which impacts budgets, and our ability to plan for a better future.

This seemingly endless period of stress has got me thinking that we have all been in an extended state of fight or flight. In very real terms the pandemic triggered responses that were built on a fear so deep we were fighting for our survival. Some of us fled, leaving our careers or at least opting to continue working remotely long after others had returned to campus. People caring for children, sick relatives, or protecting their own health found it hard to transition back to pre-COVID life, and rightfully so. Others resolved to move forward, testing their faith in the recommended precautions as they went into grocery stores, classrooms, or took public transportation. All of us were afraid. We drew on the protections we could muster, tamping down our fear and sometimes succumbing to it, just trying to move forward. No wonder we have been so exhausted.

Our capacity to draw on our survival mechanisms is important, and it helped us get through the worst of the pandemic but staying in that mindset (and the physiological impacts that come along with it), is a terrible long-term strategy. It is bad for health (physical and mental) and eventually traps us in a cycle of behaviors that are only reactive. But moving forward requires us to be thoughtful planners, not emergency responders. For our health and our future, it is time to let that fight or flight mindset go.

As I bask in the happiness that the promise of spring always brings out in me, I am thinking about all of the ways this letting go can improve my work. I am no longer thinking about how to respond to external forces – at least not as a primary motivator. I am thinking about the factors that help create a thriving university. I am thinking about better strategies to support our students’ health and wellness and how to set them up for success. I am thinking about creating environments where faculty routinely exchange ideas about teaching and scholarship and find ways to collaborate on both. I am thinking about how to disrupt the separations between academic and student affairs, so that much more co-planning with shared visions can take place. Oh, how exciting! All of these thoughts have next steps — some mysterious, others obvious — but they are things to do that aren’t a response, but a chance for a plan.

Yes, the daylight is growing, and my heart is full. I am no longer preparing for attacks and disasters. That perspective has outlived its usefulness. Instead I am reveling in the fun that comes with imagining a brighter future. My mind is filled with ideas and I can’t wait to start new conversations with my colleagues about what could come next. It is not spring yet, but I’m there already and it is glorious.