The waters are choppy these days. What sort of boat are you sailing in?
As a whole society we have sailed into uncharted waters - a world where we are trying to remain protected from an ambiguous menace, have access to a limitless opportunities to take in media designed to spike the fight-or-flight wing of our nervous system, all with highly limited in person, face to face social support.
It's a recipe for waking up each day feeling very, very anxious and out of control.
Let's break this down to understand how these factors come together to cause such nervous system disregulation.
1. The ambiguous menace. COVID-19: it is invisible, yet highly contagious. Some people do not even show symptoms, and others - even young people - end up on ventilators in the hospital. I didn't wipe down the bread bag, but now it is in the refrigerator with everything else - did the cold air kill the germs or are they jumping onto other food? (I truly did worry about this).
Ambiguous threats trigger our fight-or-flight system by the very nature of being ambiguous. We lack clear information and so our brains become hyper-vigilant, constantly seeking out additional information to resolve the ambiguity. We are biologically wired to to this.
2. Your brain on media. Let's also remember that the news is designed to grab our attention so we engage with it. A very easy way to grab our brain's attention is through fear. Take a moment to just listen to a newscaster's voice without the content: tense, quick, serious. Then we have social media - which is, in many ways, a huge resource during these times of limited in-person contact.
But social media comes with a price - it can disrupt sleep, encourage comparison to others, shorten our attention span, and keep our nervous system on overdrive (ever thought your phone was vibrating but it wasn't? That's actually a real phenomenon and a sign of hyper vigilance).
3. Forgoing face-to-face contact. Here's the real doozie, and one that I try to remedy during therapy sessions. Face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact is enormously regulating for us human beings. We're apes. We are social beings that thrive on social interaction and our nervous systems regulate with each other.
We can be totally jacked up and freaked out and if we have a friend or partner (or even a checker at the grocery store!) that is calm and reassuring, even a brief face-to-face interaction can soothe us. A hug is even better. And these days, the checker at the grocery store is suddenly an ambiguous threat.
Let's go back to the boat metaphor. We're all sailing in choppy waters these days; we can't control that. But we do have a choice about what sort of boat we sail in. The boat is the state of our internal being - our consciousness and how we choose to direct it.
Here are three simple practices to explore while navigating the world this week:
1. Name it to tame it. Did you open up your facebook feed and suddenly become tense and hyper-focused on scanning through every scary article? Did you catch yourself skimming every news article searching for a clear answer? Great! You are very, very human. It actually calms your brain to name an experience - it is a kind of compartmentalizing that can help bring awareness and even control to a behavior. Simply NOTICE the behavior and give it a name in your mind. "Using Facebook. Heart rate going up."
2. Shift attention. Did you name it to tame it? Awesome! Since you are now aware of what you are doing, you have a chance to change your behavior. If you have noticed your muscles getting tight, your heart rate going up, your breath getting shallow - it is time to redirect your attention. Feel your feet on the floor. Take a deep breath. Look at a photo of a loved one, at a favorite plant, out the window at the sky.
3. Move your body. After our fight-or-flight nervous system has been activated, our bodies need a reset. We have a biological need to know that the threat has passed and we can now move on to more peaceful business. Otherwise we remain in a hyper-aroused state that is exhausting in a multitude of ways. Moving our bodies gives us this much needed reset. So: turn on some music and DANCE. Shake out every limb. Use your hands to vigorously brush off your arms, legs, torso, back. Look silly - it will help move the nervous energy.
Above all - remain compassionate to yourself. This experience is unlike anything any of us have ever gone through together. We're all doing the best we can - including me. Including you.
Practice of the Week
Weekly practices in mindfulness, self-compassion, nature connection, and healthy relationship habits. Themes are personal growth, committed partnership, parenting, and greater connection with self and the earth.