It’s a strange old time, isn’t it? Life looks very different from just a few weeks ago. Most of us are willingly giving up our freedoms to avert the worst impacts of the Covid19 pandemic.
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that this is a global trauma. Even if you have a home, have savings and aren’t terrified about loss of livelihood, aren’t sick, don’t have anyone close to you seriously ill, are able to access enough food and live in a country with a reasonably robust health system, you’ll likely be hearing stories about people who are ill, struggling, having to go to work unprotected, penniless, threatened with losing their home, or dead. Maybe it’s people you know – or the friends and family of people you know – maybe it’s other beings across the world you’re witnessing through the news outlets, which is full of it, 24/7.
I don’t think you can be untouched by it.
It’s as if the whole world has gone into sympathetic nervous system overdrive: fight, flight, freak or freeze. Countries competing with other countries for resources – even to the point of diverting planes. States within countries outbidding each other for resources. Blame and scapegoating. People fleeing to places they can feel safe (even if instructed to stay put). Some spitting in key workers’ faces screaming ‘I have the virus, I have the virus!’ Others not going out even though they can and don’t fall into the highly vulnerable group because they’re utterly terrified.
IT ALL MAKES SENSE.
It’s all a survival response.
Our nervous systems are collectively jangled.
Our autonomic nervous system has 2 parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is known as our survival response: it does what it says on the tin – tries to keep us safe. We need it! It’s designed to increase stress hormones in short bursts to propel us into whatever action is needed to help us survive, whether that’s to fight, flee, freak out or freeze. Simplified, it’s like the accelerator in a car. It’s not designed to be perpetually on.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is our relaxation response. It’s nicknamed ‘rest and digest.’ It provides the counter-balance to the sympathetic nervous system. It would be like the brake and the neutral gear of a car.
Sympathetic nervous system overdrive is not good for us. It’s useful and needed – but in times like these, it’s like you’ve got a brick on the accelerator and the car is hurtling along unable to stop at traffic lights and roundabouts and unable to slow down for the cat darting across the road.
Basically, we need to regulate, because if we don’t, we are likely to crash.
The crash might be a lowering of your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. It might be deep exhaustion. Insomnia. Some kind of breakdown. Or just plain rattiness and grumpiness!
It takes conscious effort to intervene on our own behalf to turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, so that we can regulate.
Creating a sense of safety
The reason your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive is because you don’t feel safe in some way (which is perfectly understandable).
Here are the 6 basics of self-care to help you feel safer, so that you can regulate.
When we’re in fight, flight, freak or freeze, our breathing is probably quite shallow and high up in the chest. To shift into a relaxation response, the quickest way is to intentionally change how you’re breathing.
- Breathe in slowly through the nose – try to breathe as fully as you can
- Hold it for a few seconds
- Breathe out through the mouth, like you’re blowing out a candle – make the exhalation longer than the inhalation if you can
- Hold it for a few seconds
The longer exhalation is important – because it stimulates the vagus nerve to produce and release the chief neurotransmitter of the parasympathetic nervous system.
It might help to set a timer on your phone to go off randomly throughout the day – this is your cue to practise switching on your PNS through breathing.
Make sure you’re getting enough food at regular intervals. Regularity and rhythm help to calm our nervous systems. Not eating enough puts us into a stress response. Do not go for long periods without eating! Don’t buy into the ‘fasting is good for you at a time like this’ malarkey. And please, DO NOT DIET!
Even THINKING about restricting (dieting/ worrying about weight gain) puts your brain into a stress response. This means that even if you’re eating enough food, but you’re worried about how much you’re eating, thinking you shouldn’t be eating so much, or that you’re eating too much of certain foods and not enough fruit and vegetables, you will be in a stress response.
The main thing is to eat enough, without guilt. Worry less about what you’re eating – by all means, if you like fruit and vegetables and you can access them, great. If you don’t like them/ can’t access them, have what you like and is accessible, without feeling guilty about it. The guilt will probably do more harm than fruit and veggies would undo.
It’ll help your SNS to calm down if you’re eating in a calmer way. If possible, sit down and take a few breaths before eating.
3. PAY ATTENTION TO HYDRATION
I’m not one to get on the bandwagon of a certain amount of liquid being a requirement for all humans. No. We’re individuals with different bodies and different lives and circumstances. Our needs will not be uniform. Pay attention to the colour of your pee. If it’s a dark yellow, drink more. If it’s see-through, you’re probably drinking too much which can increase stress on the body. Thirst also plays a part in this picture – but beware – you can be over-drinking and still feel thirsty. Your pee is a more reliable guide.
You probably need to rest more than you think. Just because you’re home, doesn’t mean it’s restful. Your circumstances are definitely different to what they normally would be. Perhaps in ways it’s easier for you – but in other ways, harder. Don’t blame yourself if you’re feeling more tired than normal. It’s to be expected.
If you’re a keyworker, you may not have much opportunity for rest – you may not even be reading this because you don’t have time! I send you love and deep gratitude for all you’re doing 💗.
For those of us who are staying home – pay attention to what exacerbates restlessness, agitation and anxiety. We could all probably do with shutting off the news for most of the day. I promise you you’ll get to hear about anything important soon enough.
Please let go of expectations of productivity – whether you’re working from home, or thinking now’s a great time to build your deck, redecorate your home, or become the perfect homeschooling parent.
Give yourself (and your kids) permission to lie down, nap, read, paint, meditate, journal – whatever feeds your soul. Perhaps you can have a walk outside and pay attention to nature. Listen to the birds, look at the trees – even if you live in a city – look out for nature. The sky is accessible to us all even through a window.
You might think watching any kind of programming on telly is resting because you’re sitting or lying down. Nope. Notice the impact on you. Laughing turns on the parasympathetic nervous system. Suspense turns on the sympathetic nervous system – even if you’re lying on the sofa…
Consider taking a break from or limiting social media where not only is fake news rife, you’re putting yourself in a noisy and newsy environment – and it’s almost all focused on fear-inducing stuff right now. Instead, carefully choose what you’ll read, watch and listen to.
[As an aside, have you ever heard of FB Purity? It’s an extension you can install on your browser and you can choose keywords you do not want to see! FB Purity will not show you any items with those keywords. That’s one way to protect yourself.]
Movement is important for our bodies – within their capabilities, of course. Too much movement, too hard, too fast, too strenuous, can turn on the SNS. Things like Qi-Gong, Tai Chi and gentle yoga are wonderful ways to move and turn on your parasympathetic nervous system. There are loads of free videos on Youtube. Walks are great too!
Be gentle on yourself. This isn’t a time to be trying to make up for any increase in calories (newsflash: there’s never a good time for that…;)).
It’s a pity the politicians and media got hooked on the term ‘social distancing’ – it sounds alienating. ‘Physical distancing’ would have been better and more accurate in my opinion. Social connection is so important to our wellbeing. At times like this, especially so. Feeling connected increases feelings of safety and makes inner regulation easier.
Of course it’s harder now. Some may be living alone. Some may be living with people they don’t feel connected with – or worse – feel threatened by. If this is you, search for ‘mental health Covid19 help’ or ‘domestic abuse Covid19 help’ and you should get helplines in your area.
If you’re not in a heightened state that requires immediate help, consider playing board or card games with your coinhabitants, or calling people you haven’t spoken to in a long time. Even waving to people across the road as you keep your physical distance helps to be connected.
Connection is particularly poignant this week and weekend, when the important religious/ cultural festivals of Easter and Pesach are happening, the loss of family and community get-togethers may be hard to bear.
We can only do what we can.
Then we need to let go, because fighting with reality is stressful on our bodies, minds and spirits.
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