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.
Yesterday evening, the moon was a perfect silver fingernail sliver setting over the foothills, chasing the setting sun. I was driving north watching the moon and kept joyfully catching glimpses at stoplights or any other opportunity.
This winter, my girls and I have developed an almost daily ritual around the moon as she* goes through her phases. We pause and sit on the front stoop when we come home from school and point out the gibbous moon. We turn out all the lights in the house and run to the window to watch the setting crescent moon. We go outside in pajama feet to see the rising full moon.
We also turn out all the lights in the morning and catch the changing of the light as the sun rises. A gift (albeit, one with pros and cons) of having small children is they often wake up before the crack of dawn. Around the winter solstice, my older daughter naturally and suddenly became interested in playing "dark," where we turn out all the house lights and sit in the dark, maybe lighting a candle or two. So we do this in the morning now and then - but letting the sunrise slowly light up the sky and our house. We lie on the floor in the living room and pretend we are camping, watching the sky change colors to the west. We run to the kitchen window and note the different colors of pink, yellow, and blue as the eastern sky lights up.
Nature connection can seem mysterious and out of reach in a way that does not serve us - that connection to nature means you feel special things, can tap into vague "energies" that only special people feel, or you have the skills to track a wild animal. The truth is far less glamorous but also far more accessible. Nature connection is turning off the lights in the house, slowing down, and noticing the beauty of the world. Full stop, it is that simple, and I promise you, also that profound. You just have to do it, and most of us think we are too busy - we are too entrenched in our routines of the human world.
The tragedy there is that then we loose a part of ourselves that is so deeply human. To know the colors of the sky as a new day begins. To know the phase of the moon and where and when it will rise and set. These are things that you can connect with, no matter where you live, no matter the weather, no matter your age. It is incremental, it is a small thing. And it slowly adds up, welcoming us back into the world that is our home.
*I've begun a practice of calling animals, plants, the moon, etc, by he / she / they. This is from a hunch that things we call "it," things we objectify, things we call "things" - feel disposable, not important, or less than (human). I want to use language that instead encourages myself and those around me to respect and build relationships with everything in the natural world.
"Crap! I guess we are taking the freeway, now," I said (though perhaps with more colorful swear words).
The road down the street from us is closed for construction, and we've now been driving about 30 minutes for what should be an 8-minute trip to school. I got distracted, let my mind wander, and took a left onto the freeway where I should have gone straight. I take a deep breath and try to be at peace with the fact we're going to be late for school.
This happened yesterday, too. Only yesterday the story was "Well, I guess I'm turning onto Elm street. Daddy warned me that Elm was backed up, but I thought we'd see for ourselves. And...yep, it is backed up."
So today the story evolves. I tell my daughter, "You know, people usually don't get things right the first time. Usually you make mistakes a couple times, and you just keep learning from them until you get it right. So let's practice for tomorrow. Tomorrow I'll go up the hill, take a right, then straight through past the freeway..."
I find myself thinking back to my own experiences growing up and I really wonder if I ever received any training on making mistakes. I've known all too well the shadows of shame, impostor syndrome, perfectionism, and hiding and holding back - all things that can be born out of the deep need to avoid making mistakes. Few of us talk about these experiences in public, but they appear in my office as guarded secrets that finally get the relief that comes with sharing.
So, as a therapist, parent, partner, friend and human, I am on a mission to normalize making mistakes - and therefore, what the process of learning actually looks like.
Learning involves making mistakes. Learning involves ideas, experimentation, trying, and failing. Putting together all the information of what worked, what did not, and continuing to try and try again. Sometimes a LOT. Amy L. Eva in "Why We Should Embrace Mistakes at School" offers a slew of ideas as well as research supporting this, with the super-cool example of "productive failure" as an approach to teaching math in Singapore, where students struggle through multiple failures as an eventual path to success.
I love the term "productive failure," as it strikes me as both humorous and a great re-frame. I could get frustrated and shut-down on my attempts to drive to school, and ensure that I'll keep feeding the negative cycle. Or I can call my navigation mishaps "productive failures," hopefully bypassing shame, creating a space to learn and move forward.
So will my mom-ologue (yes, I really just made that up!) about mistakes be a moment of stellar mom-ing or a moment that was completely unmemorable? Really the answer lies in how much I make normalizing - even celebrating and exploring - mistakes a regular part of MY life. Falling forward, again and again and again.
The practice of the week:
Noticing when it takes multiple tries to get something right, and making that process explicit by pointing it out, either in your head or out loud.
Actively re-naming these "mistakes" as "productive failure." Telling yourself, "Wow, I'm really learning here. What productive failures have I had, and what is the important information I have gathered from those experiences? Are there resources I want to seek out? What do I want to try next?"
Stick with it. Probably the first few times, or even 20 times, your brain will reply by telling you this is total crap. Notice what stories come up - more shame? Irritation? Strong adherence to the idea that you don't know what you are doing? Remind yourself that learning new skills - such as re-framing the process of making mistakes, or the practice of mindfulness - is a process.
Interested in delving deeper into your own experience with shame, perfectionism, or self-doubt? This is the stuff of good therapy. Get in touch with me at 720.738.3530 or via email@example.com and let's get to work.
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.