Trapped inside my head
Right now, the world really is in a state of alarm. It’s not all in your head, but you do have some choice over how you respond to the crisis. Proportionately, or otherwise.
You may feel like you’re spinning out of control – with hair-trigger emotions, body-checking for symptoms, or erratic trains of thought. You may also swing from hyper-alert states, to emotional paralysis. The more your thoughts obsess over events, the more impulsive your behaviours become.
You may feel completely mad, but you are not alone. Whatever people tell you; however calm they may look on the outside, they are going through their own process of anxiety, or distress. Some are better at hiding it than others, even from themselves. Some genuinely are more equipped to cope, but they are still going through it.
This is absolutely normal in a crisis. People around the world really are suffering and dying from a pandemic disease. The country really is in a state of lockdown. Economic hardship is painful.
So we are all on survival mode to varying degrees. Some of us will lose loved ones or witness that suffering close up. We may even go through the trauma of contracting coronavirus ourselves. And this can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with prolonged exposure.
Anxiety and stress
We may react with primal fear, others with anxiety or trauma and some with just about manageable levels of stress.
But we really are in it together: in as much as we communicate our collective anxieties rapidly throughout the world over vast distances - via the internet and TV. We behave much like interconnected, but dispersed colonies of ants in a raging forest fire.
Most of us have felt trapped in a pattern of anxious thinking and behaving that disrupts our lives and relationships. We are both isolated, by the curse of social distancing, and yet, strangely crammed into the same prison cell with the four walls closing in.
The most important thing to remember is that for most of us the threat of coronavirus isn’t real - until it’s in the room with us. Or in our bodies. Until we have it, or our loved ones do, we are alive and kicking. We are well. The immediate threat when we are anxious is the internal environment of our own mind and body. That’s what is creating the stress. And the way we respond to it matters to our health, safety and wellbeing.
That panic attack you had, the breathlessness you feel, the catastrophic thoughts really do create physiological harm. Once you go searching for a crisis on the news or the internet, you trigger a cascade of stress hormones. Once you create a drama in your own home without self-regulating your emotions, you overwhelm yourself.
Once you start mirroring and internalising the heightened emotions of others you expose yourself to a higher heart rate and blood pressure; tension headaches; shoulder, neck and back pain and possible hyperventilation. Inflammation of the gut, acid reflux in the oesophagus and pain in the abdomen are also stress-related responses. Excessive worrying, screen playing catastrophes and social media hoaxes are the least of your troubles, so why would you go looking for them via the media and internet.
Do not ignore your body
Many people are so familiar with ignoring the signs of stress in their body, or being complacent about pain, they simply ignore and suppress the signals. Rationalising it away as if it were an inevitable feature of modern life, old age or the rat race. But now more than ever, you need to create frequent, minimal pauses to your usual cycle of rushing and anxiety.
When you’re in a state of urgency, unless you are actually in immediate danger there is no threat out there. You are creating it on the inside with every choice you make to react. If you don’t pause to slow down and breathe and ground yourself, you are fanning the flames of your anxiety. If you never take small breaks to breathe, create calm and silence in your day, you will only experience pressure and distress. And if you never allow yourself to eat, rest and refresh yourself you are hammering away at the alarm bell.
Most people rationalise these simple truths away, by claiming they haven’t got time; there are too many demands from work, home or family. But without you as a functioning, healthy human being there is no life to get on with.
All of us make decisions big and small, about how to manage and negotiate the time we have to spend alone reflecting, breathing or just listening to our bodies. We make decisions about the things we put into our mouths, how much exercise we take or whether we consider our wellbeing at all.
Many of us tell ourselves the same lie when we get caught up in a TV box series, social media, the internet or our smartphones. We say: “it doesn’t matter, I’ll look after myself tomorrow”. As if the TV and social media were the only form of relief we have. In fact, for everyone, the relief comes in the form of short-lived dopamine and an extended period of dependency. Entertainment is wonderful, but it is not relief, or nourishment or rest for the body, it is simply passive stimulation.
Yet being mindful of ourselves is so simple, if we want it to be and no effort at all.
Pause – the opposite of rushing around with urgency is to pause, take a breath you are aware of. I find the easiest way to do this is to stop moving (or any activity), slow down my heart rate with my breath and literally gaze at something with a relaxed focus, like my garden, the sunset or listening to birdsong. This is a transitional state to help me ease into being with myself. There is nothing complicated. No saints or Buddha’s here. No perfectionism.
Breathe – three simple breaths (or more if you have time). I breathe, deep and slow. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Listening to my breath. You do not need to empty your mind, the more you focus on your breath, the less you fight with your thoughts. Take sensations in, with your in-breath. Let sensations go with your out-breath. One day, it will all come together; one day it won’t. This is process. Trust your body to learn how to breathe itself. No one can really teach you. You may even fight it, but you just have to learn alone – difficult, or not. It’s a process.
Grounding – sit, stand or lie down. Press your feet, toes, heels or body flat into the floor. Try to sense the pressure, stability and connection. Keep your body upright if you’re standing or sitting, but not rigid. Let your shoulder relax. Press your buttocks in the chair. Push up against a wall or door frame with your knees bent. The point is to feel some sense of balance and stability; that you can be flexible; that your body holds you; that you find your centre of gravity.
Stretch – stretch the neck, shoulders and back, especially if you sit a lot during the day. Do stretching using online videos at first, but stretch as often as you can throughout your day for 3-5 minute periods. Pay particular attention to stretching ligaments and tendons that feel sore and foreshortened.
Move – go out an exercise, run, swim, cycle or walk. Just to pick up the heartrate, breathing deeply, being mindful of synchronising the breath with the rhythm of the limbs. There is no particular craft or timing. It’s a process, you will find your flow. It is the only way we can truly discharge stress hormones and heightened emotions in the body.
Flow – practise yoga, tai chi or martial arts - even basic moves from online videos on YouTube. Even a golf swing, snooker cue or, serving action can help. It provides the body with an optimal state of relaxed focus and fluid action.
And finally rest.