We don’t have to wait until the global pandemic and economic crisis ends in order to relax. In fact, attending to the natural cycles of activation and de-activation in our nervous system—on a daily basis—increases our capacity to tolerate high intensity and easily return to a restful state. Doing so increases resilience, which is defined as the capacity to recover from and adapt quickly to challenges and stressors. In material science, resilience is the elasticity of an object that allows it to return to its original shape and not shatter under pressure. Before we can understand how to build resilience, we first need to understand our nervous system’s rhythms, the impact of our survival response on the body, and how somatic tools can help us remain flexible and adapt to changing demands from the environment.
Experiencing safety, our nervous system is in an easy cycle of activation and deactivation, e.g. the heart and lungs constrict and expand to breathe and pump blood and oxygen to the entire body. In optimal functioning, the rhythm is not stuck in either activation or shutdown. When our brains perceive a threat, however, it sends neurochemical messages to the body to prepare for survival. The fear of COVID-19, and its associated economic impact, are putting extreme pressure on our inner and outer resources, creating the potential for a chronic and unmitigated stress response that taxes our bodies and minds.
The stress hormones the body releases to prepare us to defend and protect ourselves, give us immense energy for fight or flight. This sympathetic nervous system arousal increases heart rate and respiration and sends energy to the muscles. Because we cannot fight or flee a microscopic threat, these energies may remain stuck in the body as tightness and constriction, increased heart rate and blood pressure, shallow and rapid breathing that reduces oxygenation, sluggish digestion and stomachaches, and headaches. Under these conditions of undischarged activation, our vision narrows and becomes focused on the threat, possibly leading us to become obsessed with news of the mounting death tolls and unemployment rates, further increasing the threat response. We might be more reactive and impulsive, unable to sleep, reason or communicate effectively.
Our parasympathetic nervous system calms us down, slowing heart rate and breathing rates, and relaxing the muscles and the gut. The body begins to discharge the excess arousal energies as follows:
b) warm sweat
c) waves of body heat
d) shaking or trembling
e) deep breaths or yawns
f) gurgles in the stomach
g) goose bumps on the skin
But if our calming response is not able to engage to enable stress to be discharged from the body, it builds in our system and begins to accumulate. This is called an allostatic load, and the cost of this extreme wear and tear on our bodies, mind and emotions causes our higher order processing to begin to shut down. We may feel fatigued and burned out, unmotivated and unable to concentrate or problem solve, emotionally stunted and apathetic. Ultimately, our immune system also becomes impaired.
The good news is that there are simple somatic (body awareness) tools that can activate the vagus nerve, largely responsible for initiating the parasympathetic calming response. The goal is not to be calm all of the time, which is unrealistic, but rather to increase capacity and resilience. We are dealing with immense challenges, and therefore we need increased capacity to handle activation without getting stuck, allowing us to access calming moments and restoring the nervous system’s oscillating rhythms.
The following is a simple set of exercises you might utilize to increase your capacity to rebound even in the midst of a crisis. The important thing is to allow tension and stress to discharge from the body. Once tears and sweat flow, or trembling completes, the body returns to a regulated state. Focus, concentration, memory, language, digestion and sleep become possible.
1. Slow down and feel your body
a. Your body is the container of your experience and the radar signaling you are stressed. Simple awareness of the body’s sensations of constriction may allow them to let go.
b. Awareness of the adult, strong and capable body can reassure a frightened mind to access a sense of efficacy and empowerment. Our brain’s neuroception (automatic neural perception) of safety may be restored.
c. Use self-touch to further connect to yourself, such as patting your arms and legs, moving your joints, stretching, feeling your bare feet on the ground, holding a palm on your heart and one on your belly as you observe your breath’s rhythm non-judgmentally.
2. Look around and sense the world
a. Orientation to safety in the present moment and away from news of the threat may initiate the calming response. Soften and broaden your gaze and let your relaxed eyes roam the space you’re in. Notice your body and breath and see if anything shifts. Is your breath more expansive? Can you soften anywhere there is holding or gripping?
b. Use your five senses to self-soothe and ground into present-moment reality. What do you see, hear, smell, taste or touch that is pleasant? Can you give any of these pleasant experiences your full attention? How does your body respond?
3. Mobilize your resources
a. Make a list of 10 resources that help you feel calmer or more capable and in control of your internal response. These can be internal, as in a sense of humor or self-compassion; or external, as in supportive others, the beauty in nature, your pets, or activities that are helpful. Notice what happens as you think of these resources.
b. Use expressive arts – journal, draw, paint, dance, sing, write poetry, create a worry box, draw a body map to track your newfound pleasant or unpleasant sensations. If you’re drawn to express the frightening or overwhelming emotions, make sure you balance that with some focus on resourced or pleasant experiences and emotions. This allows rhythm to return to your body’s nervous system.
c. Literally move – dance, do yoga, walk outside, run or shoot hoops. Then take time and notice the body as it returns to an easy breath and heart rate. Enjoy the after-effects of moving.
d. Call a trusted friend or counselor and allow yourself to acknowledge and express your feelings of sadness, fear, anger, frustration, grief and overwhelm. Let someone else validate your experience and normalize that what you are feeling makes sense given these deeply abnormal times.
e. Focus on what you can control – there may not be a lot you can control in your community and the world, but you can establish certain predictable patterns in your life, such as regular and healthy meals, meditation moments, nighttime rituals to prepare for an early night’s sleep, scheduling exercise as well as social connection time, even if it’s electronically.
More important than carving space out of your busy life for “self-care,” is the ability to pause frequently throughout your day to check-in with your body, mind and emotions. Notice your embodied state, get grounded and oriented to safety, allow for emotions and sensations to discharge, mobilize a resource, and return to your current activity in a more regulated state.
Inge Sengelmann, LCSW, SEP, RYT-500 is a clinical social worker, Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and registered yoga teacher who integrates body, mind & spirit to heal the effects of acute or chronic stress on psyche and body.