I’m writing on a cancelled spring break, because even though the coronavirus is barely here yet, we know it’s already a pandemic. We have already been significantly impacted- our work, our homes, our financial stability, our disappointed children and our frightened elderly or sick. We don’t know how long it will last, or how severe it will get before we are finished. The uncertainty makes it very difficult to plan what to do, even tomorrow- let alone next week or next month. All this can make it difficult to feel safe.
My first post was about polyvagal theory- written when the virus was still just beginning to be seen in China, and seemed far away from home. However, that post could serve as an unexpected primer now that all of us have distressed nervous systems. When we feel unsafe, our whole limbic system comes on-line for the red alert. If you’re feeling anxious or struggling to sleep right now, that’s your nervous system gearing up for battle- only there isn’t anywhere to run and no one to fight when the enemy is a virus. Having your nervous system activated also makes it harder to make good decisions, as the part of the brain that is responsible for effectively managing problems isn’t the part of the brain in charge when we’re scared. So, we need to be patient with each other right now when we’re irritated or sharp-tongued or do something out of character, or not well thought through. Many of us aren’t at our best right now, but we are definitely all doing the best that we can.
Some things that can help your nervous system settle back down to manageable levels are surprisingly easy to do. In our society we are all taught to “muscle through” and be tough. This is actually the opposite of what is helpful to your nervous system, and often just makes anxiety worse. Your nervous system is scanning for danger when it’s activated- it’s in protection and defense mode. We want to give it plenty of data that for the moment, you are safe. If you’re ignoring it, you are not giving your nervous system the data it needs to deactivate.
Rather than muscling through, or ignoring your anxiety, pause for a few minutes and do an “orientation” exercise. You can do this visually or auditorily (or you can do both). Sit comfortably and close your eyes. Listen carefully to all the noises around you and identify each one. Listen for a couple of minutes. This is bringing in sensory data to your nervous system that what you are hearing is not dangerous. Now do it again visually. Look around and pick a focal point, and describe to yourself in detail what you are looking at- the color, shape, texture and any other feature. This brings in visual data to your limbic system that it’s not a lion.
Your limbic system is an old part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective, and it’s wired to basically watch and listen for predators in the bushes. When you ignore the “red alert” the system can’t shut off and you can become chronically anxious or activated. And if it is activated for too long or at too much intensity, it can get overwhelmed. Then we get freezing, numbness, depression and apathy.
Another good strategy to deactivate the system when it’s activated is meditation. Personally, meditation has always been hard for me, because I thought I had to make my brain stop thinking about things. Which I can’t easily do- the inside of my brain is busy and sometimes squirrel-like. I eventually learned that the goal isn’t to have a quiet brain, but to just keep bringing yourself back to the meditation focus when your mind wanders. I also learned that nearly everyone has a wandering brain, because that is the default brain network. (Some of the research even calls it “Wandering Brain”). This research explains that it takes less energy for brains to wander hither and yon than to stay focused, so if we aren’t trying to be focused, all of us wander off. (This made me feel better). Meditation over time is training the brain to run on a more focused calm network so that it eventually doesn’t take any more energy to be there than the old wandering default. And with practice, a wonderful thing starts to happen- your brain now runs more of the time on the new focused and calm network. Even when you aren’t actively meditating.
Activity that requires deep breaths is also deactivating. Deep breathing, of course, but also singing and playing wind instruments send the same signals to the brain. Your nervous system equates deep full breaths with safety- no one can do deep slow breaths when running from a lion, after all, and our old limbic system is still running on that particular software.
Yoga does much the same thing, but I’ll let our clinician Laura Swinford talk with you about that in another post – she is our resident yogi and owner of a local studio.
Sensory activities are helpful if your system goes into freeze. You want to reconnect your brain with your body, so warm baths, music, good food, touch- anything that sends sensory information to your limbic system to signal “all is well.” Even washing dishes can be helpful, as there is sound, temperature differences with the water, slippery bubbles, scented soap. This is the basis of why mindfulness works- mindfulness is paying attention to details and sensory information to help deactivate unnecessary nervous system responses.
A favorite way to deactivate for most of us is being with friends and loved ones. We are mammals, and we look for our pack to help us feel safe and protected. The social distancing is isolating by design- and must be to save lives. However, it goes against the way we are all wired, especially in times of stress or danger.
I heard a New Yorker today talking about how different this crisis is than 9-11, because in 9-11, everyone could be together. In the coronavirus, we will all be separated. This isolation can take a toll on our fight/flight/freeze mechanism over time if we are not careful. Fortunately, we have a lot of technology to help us stay connected through the crisis. Use your video chat and your phone to talk to people instead of scrolling through social media feeds. Play games with friends or family by video by having the same game in both places, and mirroring the board as each side makes moves. Trivial Pursuit is a good one to play this way. Be creative in sharing activities with group video too. We will all likely binge-watch some Netflix in the coming weeks, but remember that social connection is far more healing than watching TV alone. We can still connect with our technology.
What we can do now is take care of ourselves and each other by giving people the benefit of the doubt and being patient when we know we are all in an activated state, and staying in touch with our friends, colleagues and families as much as possible. Just because we are physically isolated does not mean that we need to be socially isolated. Our nervous systems will weather the storm better together.