We are all under tremendous stress as our daily rhythms and routines –which so often organize and ground us—cease to exist, and we are left with trying to cope with unprecedented pressures. It’s safe to assume all of us are currently in some low- or high-grade form of a stress response (i.e. fight, flight, or freeze), which may vary depending on the stressor, the day, and the person. We all respond to stress in our own unique ways that help us regulate our systems. While some will binge on news updates, others will avoid them. Both responses make sense for the individual.
If we think about our evolutionary origins, we’ve inherited “a negativity bias.” Our ancestors successfully survived because they attended more to negative and anxiety-provoking dangerous stimuli. As such, researchers have found that it takes us twenty seconds to encode (and experience) positive events compared to those that are negative. Psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson has said that “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” This requires us to intentionally practice cultivating and savoring pleasant sensations, emotions, thoughts, and experiences.
Given the very real safety risks we’re facing and the constant medical and governmental directives to conscientiously attend to physical distancing and personal hygiene practices, it’s only natural to experience heightened anxiety as a side effect. Our survival instincts need to be on alert in order to keep these safety practices top of mind. These are new habits. They require some degree of hypervigilance to prevent them from slipping out of our conscious thinking. The trouble is, if we let this take over, we will be living in a constant state of elevated stress or anxiety, which could give rise to other problems like burnout, depression, or other symptoms of concern.
We are comprised of mental, emotional, physical, (and some believe spiritual) facets. I call these our “spidey senses.” We can’t exist solely in our mental part of being; it’s imbalanced and overlooks our other aspects. We need to practice attending to, nurturing, and being in our other facets of being. We need to acknowledge that our safety instincts and stress responses are there for a reason, but also practice giving ourselves permission to feel safe in our homes, in our bodies, and give ourselves time to be in the present moment. This is a silver lining that has arisen from the unfortunate circumstances. For once the world has slowed down and now that we’re not able to go out, we can go within. Here are some practices I hope you find supportive.
Self Check-Ins. Practice regular self “check-ins” throughout the day: How are you doing mentally, emotionally, physically, (spiritually)? 0-10, how activated are you? Consider setting a bell to remind you to check in periodically throughout the day. This insight gives you information about what you’re needing and how best to practice self-care and determine the course of your day.
Practice self-care. Nutrition; extra sleep; exercise; have a routine; take work breaks; tidy up; get some fresh air. Omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics have been found to support healthy brain health and parasympathetic nervous system function (the “rest and digest” relaxation response). Practice self-compassion (not pushing yourself too much if it doesn’t feel right). If you’re having a tough time, let the “bare minimum” effort be enough for the day. Start fresh tomorrow.
Practice grounding. Yoga; chi-gong; meditation; stretching; breathing; hold a grounding stone; sit on the ground. Come into your five senses. Notice things you hear, see, smell, taste, and feel in the space around you.
Be Mindful of What You Take In. Anxiety is contagious. Keep a “low trauma diet” of stress-inducing content. Limit your exposure to news, COVID-related content, and social media. Be mindful of how much you interact with loved ones who are highly anxious or reactive and set personal limits. Give yourself permission to take time to yourself. Take breaks from thinking about it all. Limit your consumption of psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and caffeine that can exacerbate worry, agitation, or low mood.
Use Positive Psychology to Your Benefit. Research on stress mindset theory shows that having a “stress-is-enhancing” (vs. “stress-is-debilitating) mindset can powerfully increase positive emotions, positive thought patterns, and growth hormones. This is an example of how our minds and bodies are intimately connected. It turns out there really is something to seeing the glass half-full.
Focus on what you can control. Keep lists to help you stay on track and remember supportive resources and healthy distracting activities when you need them.
Practice creativity. Tapping into the right hemisphere of your brain can offer a needed break from the constant worry and analytics produced from the left, “logical” side of the brain.
Let it go. Dance! Sing! Laugh! Let yourself cry when you need to. Research has shown that humming and mantra chanting help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (for relaxation), as does laughter, intermittent fasting, massage, sleeping on your right side, taking cold showers, and immersing your face in cold water.
Be kind. Get in touch with loved ones. Share your appreciation for them. Help others when you can. Spend time with pets. Although it can feel like a lonely and isolating time, you may notice that when you make the effort to reach out, others’ love and care is more palpable than ever.
Internal Island of Calm
Bring your awareness inwards and notice what sensations are present in your body. See if you can find an area of calmness or neutrality in your body. It may be in a small part of you that doesn’t feel much, just neutral. It may be a sensation of comfort or relaxation in your pinky toe or eyelid. You may find it in a different spot within you each time. Notice what happens when you sink your awareness into that place of stillness inside you.
Does anything inside you shift?
What is it like to notice that much of your body can feel tense and uncomfortable, yet this tiny area of comfort remains a place you can rest your awareness?
Can you connect to that inner place of calmness throughout the day?
Gratitude for Safety & Support
In these moments, remind yourself of the ways you are safe. Allow yourself to feel safe in your home, in your body, in your city, in your country. Feel yourself empathetically connected to so many people around the world experiencing this together. So many people working for the same cause of maintaining safety and wellness. Those working hard to supply the essentials you need. So many people with kind intentions willing to offer their support. Feel your shared humanity. Cultivate an appreciation for the subtle aspects of magic all around you –the technology that allows you to connect remotely with loved ones and feel a part of an online exercise community. Allow yourself to appreciate these aspects of safety and support around you.