How to press the off button for fear
Are you struggling to press the stop button? Doing things which are out of character?
Over the last week, I have struggled to stay in my routine, I have stayed up late into the night working when I don't need to, read endless news articles, got angry with myself, my daughter, the world for having selfish people in it - as if that will help anything.
My healthy eating is irrelevant now, exercise almost stopped, and I'm definitely on edge. All I want to do is eat chocolate, and more chocolate and I'm telling myself why not, it's the end of the world as we know it - isn't it? And a whole new debate starts in my head. I know I'm not alone here, but I also know it's all fear-driven.
If you're having unusual behaviour symptoms, you may also have noticed all sorts of weird stuff going on with your body. Are you arguing more, struggling to sleep, restless, frustrated with information?
Or are you teary and overwhelmed, perhaps feeling a bit sick? Tummy upsets? Physical pains? Do you find yourself ranting, picking fights or getting into arguments?
Or have you just hibernated; you just want a duvet day? You have decided to shut yourself off from the outside world like a squirrel, overstocked up with food. Are you hunkering down waiting for it all to be over?
If you are feeling any of these things, it's perfectly natural. And you are 100% not alone. You are, in fact, an utterly average human in extraordinary times.
We are in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that has shown up unexpectedly, which presents a mortal threat to ourselves, our loved ones and our way of life.
It's like a horror movie, and it's getting worse, and it makes us feel totally out of control. And this is on top of anything else we were going through before. When we are exposed to threats and need to deal with them, our brain springs into action.
Our brain has three responses to fear:
1. There's 'fight or flight', meaning that you either flee the danger or you fight it.
2. 'Tend and befriend' is a newer discovery:
'Tend' means that in the presence of a threat, you go and tend to the young and focus on young people.
Or 'befriend' is that you do something social around it. You communicate with others about the threat.
3. 'Freeze and appease' - some species, when they are in the presence of a warning or a predator will freeze, literally playing dead, so that they will be left alone. When we freeze, we emotionally shut down to eliminate the danger. 'Appease' is where you are afraid of something or someone but you meet the preferences or needs of that thing. You appease it.
What can we do?
There are many strategies for how you can shift out of fear at the moment when you're feeling it. In mindfulness or somatic work, you'd find all kinds of avenues and practices.
But I think that the key here is to think about it as; "okay, first of all, I want to shift out of it so that I can survive in the pandemic or cope to look after my family, without trying to do it while feeling afraid".
The part of our brain where fear lives is an ancient part of our make up. It came into being when threats consisted of being eaten by large scary animals. It's pretty basic, so it only has two settings: on or off, stop or start.
On - It feels like it is a threat to our lives, our body preps for the fight from the danger, or flight - running away really fast. It does this by flooding your body with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, and your breathing goes shallow, your muscles are ready for action. These chemicals are also mostly responsible for the massive range of other reactions, from palpitations, feeling sick, headaches and stress symptoms.
In the situation facing us today, where so many are affected, these reactions show up whether you think you're scared or not. Our anxiety is infectious, passed to each other; our bodies react even if we are not consciously afraid.
Fight or flight is great if you can run, but we are in a situation where we're being asked to do the exact opposite. We are being told to stay home. We have to process large amounts of information, make complicated and life-changing decisions and stay calm. We are in an awful lot of stress, anxiety and uncertainty which our bodies need to process.
So what to do: well, the good news is that it is possible to calm down. Here are some proven activities which will help:
Breathing exercise - breathing is necessary, but breathing exercises are like a magical remedy. They work in minutes, and you can do them anywhere.
By controlling your breathing, you are basically telling your body to relax. Your body will then start to dial down the adrenaline and cortisol, and all the other reactions will slow to a halt.
How to control your breathing?
Focus on the physical sensation:
• In through the nose, then out through the mouth. Slowly focus on the rise and fall by placing your hand on your chest or stomach and nothing else.
• Make the out-breath longer than the in-breath – imagine there's a candle in front of you and it mustn't go out.
• Put your hand on your tummy or chest and feel it rise and fall with your breath.
• Do it for two minutes - time yourself - and see how you feel.
Another exercise: get comfortable: head and spine straight, close your eyes when ready.
Focus on your body - rub two fingertips gently together with such intensity you can feel the fingertip ridges, on both fingers just focus on the sensation and let all your thoughts go. Just focus on the feeling and relax.
Curiosity replaces fear
Get curious. In any situation where you feel afraid, ask yourself: what or where about this situation can I become authentically more curious? Let your curiosity lead you. Really explore or look at something, seeing the colours and textures for the first time, explore the minute detail.
Reach-out. Call a friend - someone who'll listen while you have a bit of a rant or a cry, or talk it through. Someone you can trust not to judge you and who'll just sympathise. And if you get one of those calls, just be there for the other person, be kind and don't judge them. You can't fix what's going on so just give them a bit of space to rant and tell them they're being reasonable and doing great.
It doesn't matter what is funny. Laughter is a massive releaser of endorphins. Hold a competition on FB; something like 'what made you laugh the most?'; the sillier, the better. Laugh together with family or friends, use Skype, Zoom, Facetime so you can see and hear one another person to make you feel less lonely.
Do something with your hands:
Cook, model aircraft, paint, draw, bake, garden, mend things. Focus your mind on what you are creating to distract you from your thoughts. Your brain will thank you for it.
Treat your body:
We hold stress in our bodies at least as much as our minds. Take a bath or a shower. Put on things that feel good on your skin. Use lovely smelling moisturiser. Get moving. Eat healthy but delicious things - fresh if you can get it. All of these will help calm you down.
Get some fresh air: go for a walk, run, jog outdoors, connect to nature. Sitting on a bench and watching the birds is hugely calming. (Please always check the latest advice from the Government about restrictions on spending time outdoors).
Make a clear plan for social media intake:
All it will do will scare you more and make things worse. Turn off the television, limit yourself to short need-to-know information each day. You'll feel better immediately if you don't immerse yourself in news and other opinions on the news.
Be kind to yourself:
Now may not be the best time to go on a diet. If restricting yourself with food normally comes with an emotional challenge, then ask yourself if doing this now is the right thing for you. There is no need to make the current situation more difficult than it already is. You will be able to return to your desired way of eating once again, but maybe for now focus your self-care regime on comfort, books, films and food.
Lastly, maintain self-care:
- Identify three practices that are your foundation for looking after yourself.
- For me, it's getting dressed for work before I do any client work.
- Sticking to a routine not watching television during the day.
- Going for a walk and getting fresh air whatever the weather.
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