MINDHACKS - How to Walk the Line between Prepared and Panicked
Since the Coronavirus outbreak, I, like everyone else in the world, have found myself trying to process the continuous barrage of negative information. I have experienced moments of extreme fear and sleeplessness; I have yelled at my daughter when I would normally be more patient; and I have found myself checking the news more in one afternoon than I normally would in a week.
Let's all get a collective grip on ourselves. Let it be our goal to walk the line between being prepared and being paranoid and panicked about what is unfolding.
Where Do We Begin?
When I am so overwhelmed that I can't think straight, I try to remember that a good place to start is by asking, "What is IN my control, and what is OUT of my control?" This question works like magic because it centers our focus in the midst of overwhelm.
WHAT I CAN CONTROL
As we identify what we can control, it becomes very clear that personal responsibility and self regulation are the themes. We can all do our part making healthy choices to the best of our ability. This involves following the directives of health experts AND doing what we can to keep our own bodies and minds strong and healthy (which includes managing stress!).
We all know we need to wash hands, reduce person to person contact, stay home if we are sick, etc. We can also turn our focus to manage our INTERNAL choices, such as the thoughts we dwell on, our attitude, and how we manage our stress and emotional reactions.
This week I will be sharing new strategies for self-management in a series of blog posts. My hope is to offer coping tools for your toolbox and a healthy distraction from the constant influx of information. The goal is for all of us to practice and strengthen our ability to manage our stress and our emotions so that we are not adding unnecessary stress to an already-overwhelming situation.
TIP #1: Get to Work on Getting Calm
First, the backstory: When we are scared, nervous or otherwise agitated, our bodies and minds shift to operating in the sympathetic mode (AKA: survival mode). In sympathetic mode, our bodies unconsciously decide whether to fight, flee or freeze. We cannot stop our systems from being triggered into sympathetic mode, but we CAN recognize what is happening and work to restore our system to parasympathetic mode (rest & digest/calm mode).
The folks emptying the shelves in the store and buying up all of the medical supplies and toilet paper are clearly operating from survival mode. A community operating from this mode can potentially wreak more havoc than the virus itself.
The Higher brain functions of Logic, Assessment, Judgment, Decision Making and Problem Solving are all functions of the Prefrontal Cortex, which operates ONLY if we are in calm mode -- higher brain functions actually go offline when the survival instinct is triggered. Normally, we can wait for the body to restore itself to calm when the threat is over. However, when we are in the midst of prolonged stress, it is best to intentionally carve time out for self regulation strategies.
Once we understand this basic physiology of our bodies, we can target our focus according to first things first. Learning and practicing skills to calm yourself and your nervous system will cut down your recovery time and speed up efficiency for problem solving. As you practice, it gets easier too. Learning to restore calm also mitigates the damaging effects of long-term stress and replaces feelings of helplessness with a greater sense of empowerment because you are taking action. Since stress is part of life, these are tools that will last a lifetime.
Pause & Breathe Deeply
Pausing interrupts the spiraling effect of panic and overwhelm, giving us an opportunity to choose consciously. Breathing deeply begins the process of shifting our nervous system from survival mode to calm mode. Remember, Assessment, Judgment and Decision Making are all brain functions that ONLY operate if we are operating in calm mode.
When we are scared or stressed our muscles constrict, including our diaphragm, which sits just below our lungs. When the diaphragm constricts, this restricts our lower lungs from full expansion; we may notice shallow breathing or difficulty taking a "full breath".
Exercise: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Sit up straight (not stiff) and create some space between your shoulders and your ears. Place your hands on your lower belly beneath your navel. Start with an exhale and SQUEEZE your abdominal muscles to push every last bit of air out of the lungs. Then relax your belly on the inhale and fill it with as much air as possible. Repeat: Squeeze on the exhale, Relax and fill your belly on the inhale. Imagine a balloon in your lower belly that you inflate and deflate with your breath. Keep your hand on your lower belly as you learn to move it with the breath. Your exhale will be longer than your inhale and that is good; this is what resets the body and mind and restores calm.
Practice: Try diaphragmatic breathing for 5-10 breaths throughout the day whenever you feel anxious or tense, or when you are having trouble sleeping (keep redirecting focus away from racing thoughts and to your breath). This is also a great tool to integrate into your daily routine as a centering practice when you are transitioning into a different context, like before entering the work space or the home space.
WHAT I CAN'T CONTROL
Here is what I do to manage my stress over the infinite list of things that are out of my control.
Envision white light around whatever is causing the worry. If I'm worried about my daughter, I visualize her surrounded by white light and I invoke a feeling of peace within (you may need to practice the other self-regulation tips first). With the current outbreak, you could do a visualization starting with yourself and those in your home, then pan out to your neighborhood, your community, your country and the world.
The bottom line is to interrupt the mind's tendency to catastrophize, and to strengthen our ability to redirect and focus the mind intentionally. Breathe, connect, & be present. Be well!