I need to feel safe
The current pandemic we are all experiencing will be provoking different emotional and survival responses for different people. Fear and anxiety are natural responses at a time like this, but fighting your anxiety may only send you into further turmoil. It is helpful to be able to let go of your fears and discharge your stress hormones, at least some of the time.
It is possible to find a balance between the ebb and flow of your fears and the more restorative moments of quiet, stillness and peace. Not perfect calm, but a moment to pause and to breathe.
For this, you will need to find a uniquely personal way to deal with your anxieties, and take ownership of how you experiment and adapt to a way that suits you. Address your body, not just the mind, and you may start to regulate the unconscious triggers that affect you.
Fight, flight or freeze
The well-known survival responses of 'fight, flight or freeze' will be triggered for many people during this time.
The fight animals among you will probably be driven towards action, problem-solving and lots of exercise.
If you are a freeze animal, you probably want to shut-down your emotions and disengage from yourself.
The avoid animals will want to flee, or escape the world.
And if you’re a sensation-seeker, you probably want to gratify your urges and binge on food, alcohol or the rush of dopamine-fuelled activities.
Managing these responses becomes imperative. It's helpful to remember for most of us, the virus hasn’t, and won't, enter our bodies. Any pre-emptive action as a result from one of the above responses will not guarantee your protection, but it may help you to feel a sense of control. All of these reactions are valid responses to a real threat that is out there in the big wide world. You are not irrational, nor are you weak to be experiencing them.
However, you cannot stay in survival mode too long; it is exhausting. You must try to find a way to live - even though living day-to-day may feel monotonous. You can learn to search for moments to thrive and take pleasure from the small things in life; the things that really matter.
The present moment
Learning to accept the ebb and flow of the present moment can be really beneficial in slowing things down enough to pause, take stock, mobilise, do what is needed and rest.
All we ever really have is now. Our minds often spend time regretting the past or worrying about the future, but we only really ever live in the present moment. And while you’re here, you can choose to respond to each and every moment the best you can. You cannot hold back time; you cannot rely on someone else’s map; you cannot control the situation. But how you respond can be managed by using the following guidelines to help you:
Get out of hyper-alert mode and into the body
The hyper-alertness of anxiety is triggered in the body first, even if we’re unaware of it. That is: until it gets into your thoughts as excessive worrying. The reason you cannot switch-off from overthinking or worst-case scenarios is because they are fuelled by stress hormones. You need to turn them down, so the thoughts stop racing.
When the amygdala in your brain senses danger it releases neurochemicals to put the body into alert mode. Your body is flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol, adrenalin and ACTH. This triggers a faster heart-rate, shallower breathing, higher blood sugar levels and primes all your muscles with spasms in preparation for ‘fight and flight’. This happens even when there is no real danger, just your imagination.
Stress hormones are triggered by sensory stimuli in your environment – such as a loud noise, the smell of smoke, or a person threatening you. Some triggers go undetected and take you by surprise, especially when you’ve spent your entire life ignoring them. Even facial expressions and voice tones can send threat signals, alerting you to situations where you don’t feel safe.
Stress hormones cause feelings of dread and urgency. All your senses go into overdrive, trying to interpret incoming stimuli for signs of threat. Even internal signals from memories, or catastrophic thoughts about the future can trigger stress hormones.
In order to tone down the threatening message, you must go into your body to regulate stress and not focus on resolving your thoughts. No matter how many solutions you find and no matter how logical you are, thoughts cannot change the way you feel, immediately. They are not the direct route to calm; your nervous system is.
Hyper-alert bodies need the nervous system to be regulated first
Slow, deep breathing literally reduces your panic, via the vagus nerve, which is wired to deactivate your ‘fight-and-flight response’. Your lungs are the only organs which operate under conscious voluntary control. You can, therefore, regulate your breathing to stimulate the vagus nerve and deactivate stress.
Practice 1: Pause, close your eyes, and turn inward. Then ask yourself 'what is happening to me now?' Listen to the stirrings of your body and mind, becoming aware of physical sensations. This may be extremely uncomfortable for you in the midst of panic, but you need to focus on your breath if you can.
Practice 2: Slow your breath down, right down and deepen your breathing motion. Do not count your breath or hold it too long, unless you’re light-headed and hyperventilating (then drink cold water and breathe into a paper bag). Breathe slowly.
Put your hand on your stomach, feeling it move in-and-out as you breathe. Hold a straight posture, sitting upright, feet anchored to the floor.
Close your eyes and gently find your own rhythm. Feel your diaphragm slowly moving up-and-down in your belly. Notice the sensation of your breathing in-and-out. Track the sensation of your breath, as it moves from nostrils to windpipe; lungs to the abdomen and then back up through the lips. Stay as long as you can with your awareness, as you breathe. Try to be patient.
You cannot empty your mind, but try not to invite any thoughts either, or fight with them. Permit your thoughts to rise to the surface of your mind and vanish like bubbles. Try not to follow them. As soon as you get distracted, bring your attention back to the sound of your breath. Remain with it, and you may begin to relax.
Practice 3: If you’re a freeze or avoid animal, do stretching exercises. Stretch out your neck, back and shoulders for at least 20 minutes to release rigidity in your muscles and ligaments. Reduce your tension. And use grounding techniques to bring yourself back into the here-and-now. Do not go into auto-pilot of drift mode: you are far more vulnerable.
Practice 4: If you’re a fight animal or sensation-seeker do a walking-breathing-meditation to discharge the build-up of stress hormones in your agitated limbs and muscles. Follow Tai-chi videos, cycling and running, or any exercise that generates a feeling of fluid, flowing movement. This can help.
At this point, it might be worthwhile finding a counsellor on the internet to have online counselling or Skype with. Find a counsellor or psychotherapist who can guide you through mindful practices that help you self-regulate anxiety and panic.