Self care and resilience through the hardest of times.
I woke up this morning with horrendous anxiety. My head felt full of worries, racing thoughts and rumination. My body felt the fear and anxiety in the tightness in my chest and loss of appetite. I knew that going for a run and meditating might help me, as it has for the past five years, but today I just wanted to curl up and drink lots of coffee. I also knew that doing that would not help me at all; coffee would increase my anxiety, and curling into myself would make me feel worse. I had to get moving to bring myself out of the state of nervous system collapse that I was in danger of.
Now, more than ever, we need to call upon what we know about self care to get through this pandemic; healthy activities that make you feel good, both physically and mentally. This might be a candlelit bath away from the kids, a ten minute meditation or a twenty minute HIIT workout. whatever it is that will boost your feel good endorphins and lift your mood.
We also need to remember how resilient we have been in the past, and how we have found ways to cope with previous life events. Resiliency comes from learning through the hard times. We build resiliency from a young age; falling out with class mates, failing English exams, heartbreak from the first romance. Through each hard time we began to recognise how we coped and what might make us feel better.
Having a sense of mastery over our fear levels can help. Control what you can control and let go of what you can’t. So, if you have control over how your day in isolation might look, then get to work and bring in self care where you can. Make your garden look good if that’s your thing and that cupboard that desperately needed clearing? Do it. That article you have been meaning to write. Make a start. All of these will help you to feel great and you will have achieved something today. This is not Pollyanna style thinking; it is simply having an optimistic view about what you can accomplish given the difficult circumstances. It’s a type of reframing.
I have had a whole range of emotions in the last few days. I’ve felt relief that life will finally slow down now that the UK has gone on lockdown. I’ve felt fear and huge amounts of anxiety in trying to keep my three kids safe. In many ways, my brain has gone into lockdown too and survival instinct has kicked in. I have become hypervigilant; every little ache in my body has had me on the alert and I’m watching my kids extra carefully.
We have all gone into survival mode and this is normal. Our thinking brains (our pre frontal cortex) have gone off line which will explain the panic loo roll buying that has happened here in the UK for the past two months. Our Amygdala (the almond shape fear centre of our brain) has gone into overdrive; our fight, flight or freeze response is creating a surge of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine. This is preparing our bodies to run, fight or ‘play dead’. This explains the fear and anxiety that are surging through us all right now. The mammalian, survival part of our brain is around 521 million years old so all of this was fine when we needed to run away from woolly mammoths but not so useful when we are in the supermarket watching the hoarders panic buy pasta.
What do we need to do to bring us into calmer states?
We need to soothe ourselves to bring ourselves out of the feeling of constant threat to our survival. But how can we do this? Through self care and compassion to ourselves. I have been in and out of my fight, flight or freeze system and I recognise what is happening; what I’m feeling is a normal response to threat and that is ok. Recognising and allowing the natural response will begin to soften the grip of these emotions.
Linda Graham, Author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, gives us a good way that we can reconnect to ourselves and it is so simple. Simply placing our hands on our heart and taking big deep breaths can begin to activate our parasympathetic nervous systems and calm ourselves right down. This exercise releases oxytocin, which is the antidote to the stress hormone cortisol.
Breathing in, try to gain a sense of ease or safety. Call to mind a moment when you felt safe, loved and cherished. When you do this let the feeling wash through your body. This brings our heart rate down and lowers our blood pressure. We can practise at any time of the day as many times as we need. Pure self care.
“Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness.” The American Institute of Stress.
Recognising when I need to practice deep breathing is a part of being mindful. I notice that when I get anxious there is a tightness in my chest, my face and shoulders feel tight and I’m quick to snap at my kids. Ok, time to take some time for me.
I also am fortunate enough to live near to beautiful hills where I can walk or run for miles without seeing anyone. Exercising is a great way to shake out the stress and it pumps up our feel good endorphins. Even on the hardest of days when I want to curl up and hide away I make myself go. Telling myself I’ll go for just a short run is a great way to trick my brain; as soon as I’m out and starting to feel better then I go further.
Being out in nature can help us to soothe our busy brains and walking in nature for even 10 minutes protects memory and cognitive functioning. So, if you can, try to get outside. If you can’t get outside you can still exercise indoors to get the endorphins going and to take you out of survival mode. Yoga, dance, home workouts through YouTube will all work. Choose your exercise and get moving.
Each day, each hour, will bring different emotions. Allowing this and recognising this as normal is part of accepting what it is that we are going through. Be kind and compassionate to yourself. Throughout the day place your hand on your heart and tell yourself how well you are doing. This is not an easy ride that we are experiencing right now. It will end and we will all come though this with greater strength, resilience and gratitude for what we have.