by Gilian Baker
Our fast-paced modern life can keep our nervous system running on full-tilt. So, what happens when a global crisis like the Coronavirus comes at us from nowhere, changing our daily lives into something we can’t recognize?
Our nervous system ramps up even more, threatening to burn out or implode. Fear, uncertainty, and panic can leave us constantly living in a fight-or-flight state.
Not only is this dangerous for our overall health, but it interferes with our ability to think rationally and make powerful decisions that we won’t regret later. When we are in the fight-or-flight response, we can’t access our creativity, intuition, or clarity.
This happens when the endocrine system and limbic nervous system, beginning in the hypothalamus, is activated. You may have heard this called “the lizard brain response” in popular media. This part of the brain isn’t bad. It keeps us safe and is essential during an emergency. However, it was much more important when we were part of a tribe that was trying to survive saber-tooth tiger attacks.
In the modern world, it activates when we attempt to do things that are outside our comfort zone, for example. When we are stressed and rushing. When we feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. We can become so accustomed to living in fight-or-flight mode we get addicted to it.
During this time of widespread panic, our lizard brain response is having a heyday. We can easily get trapped in the psycho-cybernetic loop that it’s hard to think clearly.
There is good news, though! It’s called the relaxation response.
Each of us has the capability to stop this negative or worry loop going on in our heads. Yes, it may be more challenging during scary times like this, but it is doable. Better yet, we don’t have to do it without tools. Science has shown us that there are ways to tap into the relaxation response, even when we so easily default to “catastrophizing.”
To give you some help with this, here’s a list of tools I use with my coaching clients to move them back into “rest-and-digest” mode when everything in their life seems to be going haywire.
Listening to uplifting music, whatever that means to you, can help you move out of fear and into a hopeful place. There’s no wrong music to choose. The important thing is that it makes you feel good when you hear it. You might want to create a playlist on a free app like Spotify that you can listen to throughout the day. You don’t have to listen only when you are already feeling worried. Use it as a way to maintain a positive outlook! Here’s one of my favorite Spotify lists you can try.
You don’t need to have your own personal yogi, sit cross-legged, or burn smelly incense to get the many benefits from meditation. One of the easiest meditations is the best. Simply get comfortable, either sitting or lying down (if you don’t think you’ll fall asleep), close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Notice it going in and going out. Pay attention to that short gap in the middle when you are neither inhaling nor exhaling. When your mind starts thinking (it will, because that’s what brains do), gently bring your mind back to your breath without judgment.
You can also play relaxing music or use guided meditations too. These are especially helpful if your mind just won’t seem to settle. My favorite meditation app is Insight Timer. It offers thousands of free guided meditations and music tracks.
Some of the breathing techniques that are the most effective in stimulating the relaxation response are also very simple. Even when you find yourself in full panic mode, you can remember these simple instructions:
Inhale deeply in through the nose for four counts.
Hold the breath for eight counts.
Slowly exhale through pursed lips for eight counts.
It’s recommended you do a round of ten breaths and then gauge how you feel. If you are still upset, you can do another series of ten.
This technique comes from the Heart-Math Institute and is ideal for moving into a space of deep gratitude.
Sit or lay comfortably and close your eyes. Put your attention on your heart and imagine breathing in and out of that area. Let your breath come naturally—there’s no need to force it to slow down. After practicing this for a few minutes, you’ll notice a deep sense of calm and gratitude come over you. While continuing to breathe from your heart, allow the blessings in your life to come up in your mind. Take a few moments to appreciate all you have to be grateful for.
You don’t need to be a long-distance jogger to experience a “runner’s high.” You also don’t need a bunch of expensive equipment. Take a brisk walk in the park, bounce on a personal-sized trampoline or exercise ball, give yoga, or tai chi a go. If you’ve always wanted to try yoga, for example, there are tons of free YouTube videos you can use as your guide. My personal favorite is Yoga with Adriene. If you are so inclined, pick out an app and track your progress. That’s just one more way to focus on the positive right now instead of dwelling on “what if’s.”
It might be tempting to sit and eat chips while binge-watching Netflix right now, but it’s the worst time to be doing that. Besides lowering our immune system, a diet high in processed foods and sugar doesn’t give our brains the fuel it needs to function at its peak.
It’s vital right now that each citizen is thinking clearly for the long-term. We all need to be making wise decisions and to do that, we need to be able to calm our fight-or-flight responses so our frontal cortex can run the show. We need to take positive action, not just for ourselves, but for the global community. Only offering our brains toxin-filled fuel won’t get us there. Focus on stocking up on more fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and other tasty, highly nutritious foods and leave the Ding Dongs and Cheetos on the shelves. They have so many preservatives in them that they’ll be fine there for years.
We have our organic produce, and other items delivered to our door by Imperfect Foods. They are a company on a mission to stop food waste, which as a farmer’s daughter, I wholeheartedly applaud! It’s a fabulous feel-good way to get fresh, organic foods at a much better price while not having to put on real pants. 😊 You can get $10 off your first order by going here.
Now is the perfect time in many parts of the country to be outside. Get your garden ready for summer, mulch your flowerbeds, take a walk. Much of the last week has been gray and gloomy here in Ohio, but today, the sun is out. I enjoyed lunch on the porch while listening to the birds and enjoying the daffodils that are already in full bloom in my yard. I felt like a new woman when I came back inside. I personally believe we can absorb a great deal of life wisdom by looking at nature. The birds and squirrels don’t panic when a big storm is looming. Trees don’t worry that they will lose their leaves too soon in the fall. Animals live most of their lives in a state of rest and relaxation. They only take action when it’s absolutely necessary for survival. Oh, to be a robin!
Right now, you may think there is little you can do to help others. But there are more opportunities than you might think. And helping someone who is in a worse situation than you is an excellent way to step out of thinking about your own ills and problems.
Some simple ideas include checking on your neighbors to make sure they are okay or picking up groceries for an elderly family member while you are out. Think about all the volunteers who are now stuck at home. Depending on where you live and your health, you may be able to help out places, like animal shelters, that rely on volunteers to meet the needs of your community. We recently heard that the National Guard might be activated in our area to fill boxes at local food banks. During a time of crisis, food banks will need all the help they can get. Think about ways you could help others to distract yourself while getting a hit of dopamine.
If you’d like to help but can’t think of a way, feel free to send me some of your hoarded toilet paper. 😊I still can’t find any anywhere!
What are some of the ways you keep worry and fear from overwhelming you?
Gilian Baker is a former English professor turned mystery author and writing coach. She uses personality theory and brain science to help writers overcome their creative blocks so they can write un-put-down-able books. If you are a writer who is struggling to get their book finished, go here to schedule a free Story Strategy Session.
Grab her first book, Blogging is Murder, for free on her website.
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