Moving towards the Winter Solstice, I had been feeling, like often in the last few months throughout the repeated lockdowns, pulled into two opposite directions. On the one hand, I had the need to move inwardly, acquiescing in an inner call towards silence; and on the other, I was urged to get out and meet people, to create new or rekindle old connections. Climbing towards the Equinox though, with the days slowly lengthening, the latter impulse has become markedly stronger, along with the realisation of being somewhat exhausted by this constant push and pull, at times overwhelmed, frustrated and anxious about things I would usually take in my stride.
I also realise that I may not be alone in how I feel. Since the beginning of the pandemic we have all been facing the virus itself and the difficult, negative emotions that go with it, which are every bit as contagious as the virus. It is difficult not to enter in resonance with the collective field of fear, anger and panic which causes emotional fatigue and undermines our ability to think clearly and creatively, manage our relationships effectively, and focus our attention on the right priorities.
This fatigue sets in any time the demands on our inner resources exceed our capacity of response; in this case shutdown or burnout are likely outcomes. The lengthy Covid-19 pandemic has created the right conditions for such a wearing out process to take place, while acting as a trigger to personal histories of trauma and disconnection.
In such situations it is very helpful to become aware of the fact that, in the face of threat and danger, we enter survival mode as the body prepares to defend itself, and as such we automatically tend to focus narrowly onto the sources of real or perceived threat, while our more rational and cognitive abilities progressively shut down. This is why solving problems or taking reasoned rather than impulsive/reactive decisions can feel beyond our reach.
Furthermore our response to threat elicits the release of stress hormones, like adrenaline and cortisol, which are meant to mobilise the body for action by increasing the heart rate, shortening the breath, focusing attention (therefore losing the bigger picture), impairing digestion and restful sleep. This state is characterised by high levels of energy, which, if not released through ‘meaningful’ action (fight or flight) will remain trapped in the body perpetuating the stress response physiology.
While this state of readiness is highly adaptive in the case of immediate danger, if sustained for a prolonged period of time such as during the pandemic, will cause the fatigue and anxiety I mentioned earlier.
The good news is that we can do something about it. First of all we need to become more aware of what we are feeling at any given moment. That means cultivating the capacity to observe our emotions, rather than being run by them. The simple act of recognising and naming how we feel provides the distance we need for not becoming overwhelmed, especially when we deal with intensely negative emotions.
This focussing of awareness applies also when our automatic survival response is shutdown, which goes hand in hand with a degree of numbness and disconnecting from all sensations and emotions. In this case to bring our compassionate attention to the numbing sensation and simply acknowledging it may provide a degree of relaxation in which we can begin to breathe more deeply.
Paying attention to our breath is the second step that can help with calming down. Rather than applying a specific breathing technique, the simple act of noticing how we breathe (maybe placing one hand on the heart and one on the tummy) is often enough to clear cortisol from our system and provide a sense of equanimity and quieten the body and mind.
Along with breathing, orienting into the environment around us, noticing colours and shapes and letting our gaze rest on something pleasant can offer a moment of respite and open us to the possibility of engaging socially and connecting with someone who can support us.
Once we feel calmer we can begin to recognise that not all of us is in a state of overwhelm and anxiety and we can connect with our 'adult' self.
When we embody this strong part of ourselves, we can care for and support those overwhelmed and reactive parts in survival mode and bring a sense of ‘this won’t last forever’. This is essential to be able to move away from the all encompassing experience of fear, anger and anxiety triggered by the pandemic, and step into a safer and more objective sense of self.
From this perspective we can begin to focus on aspects of life that strengthen our perception of being safe rather than scanning the environment for cues that confirm our current experience of ‘life is out to get me’.
The meaning of this Spring Equinox for me has been a recognition that balance can be found in the stillness which allows for a deep and caring witnessing of my inner experience, and from here noticing the surfacing of choice.
What strange times to be witnessing! I am sure you have all received multiple emails pointing out what to do and not to do, how to recognise Covid-19 symptoms, how to support your immune systems etc... I am not here to add just another voice to the same. Hopefully you will find some helpful information that may give you a sense of what may be going on inside you.
As we all are grappling with this worldwide Covid-19 situation, we are shown with great clarity the way different people’s nervous systems respond to stress. Some find themselves into a fight/flight response, for example: mobilising and stocking up groceries, getting angry at the political leaders or people around them for their "inadequate" or otherwise "excessive" response, going into self isolation before it is a requirement. Some go into a freeze/collapse response, behaving as if nothing was happening and going about life in a business as usual fashion, feeling utterly helpless and paralysed with hopelessness, or assuming that we can chant or pray all of this away (spiritual bypass is a form of dissociation). Some people try to grasp the situation, rationalising and making meaning and stories to feel a sense of control. Some look outside themselves for someone to blame, pointing fingers at the way others respond to stress in a constant quest to avoid sitting with their own emotional discomfort.
Personally I feel I have oscillated from one extreme to the other of all of the above before finding my centre again (only to loose track of it as the wind blows).
One thing though, is important to understand; these are all "intelligent" (even when inadequate) and unique responses of our nervous system to this situation of uncertainty and fear. Like Thomas Hübl points out, the virus pandemic is triggering us on a global scale to feel into collective trauma (our reactions are amplified by equal reactions of those around us), as well as into our own histories of personal trauma. The way we react to this emergency is a mirror of our very own learned patterns of coping with trauma and survival and we may find ourselves pushed to the edge of our own challenges.
An invisible enemy like a virus is likely to make us feel under attack from all directions, so look out for signs of hyper-vigilance and increased levels of anxiety. Bring yourself to the here and now feeling your feet on the ground, do a check-in with your own felt sense, focus on longer exhalations to calm that racing heart which may be keeping you awake at night. You may also try to refrain from making projections of the future from a place of terror; chances are you will see no positive outcome: your brain can see of the future only what is in the present moment, so unless there is a degree of nervous system regulation, the scenario will be rather gloomy. Listen to the wise horse of the picture above, when you cannot see a way through, just take the next step, and then the next and the next...and so on: mindful awareness in a nutshell. Listen to Rick Hanson TedX talk again and practice daily your dose of happiness.
I am doing my best to stay grounded in reality, noticing what makes me falter while also setting boundaries to negative stimuli (too much "information" or videos of Trump are not good for getting in touch with my inner sense of peace), while also being open to observing what happens both within me and without. This is what I call presence, a witnessing of the inner processes, a giving time for things to arise and pass, a compassionate stance, devoid of judgement: like sitting with oneself, in contemplation...If there is one good thing coming out of this situation it is time!
One of the most significant consequences of relational and shock trauma is a sense of disconnection from ourselves and others that comes from an impaired capacity for emotional and physiological self-regulation. Our ability to be present to strong emotions without feeling overwhelmed is directly linked to how we were met in early life by our primary carers. Equally, our capacity for regulation of such physiological functions as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, sleep etc. can be compromised when we have been subjected to difficult life circumstances from an early age. Such dysregulation is what makes us perceive the world as unsafe, both inside and outside ourselves.
The need to feel regulated, at ease in our body and our life, is so important that when we are overwhelmed by emotions or out of control physical sensations (think high levels of anxiety or panic) we seek the regulation that we need, often at any cost. Adaptive, yet in the long run self-destructive behaviours such as addiction to substances and behaviours, are all attempts at eliciting the inner regulation that is lacking. As a consequence we can feel alienated from our own bodies and from the people around us; we feel alone and dead inside, even when we go through life as if all was well.
It is through supporting healthy ways of regulating the nervous system using somatic awareness that we can increase our resilience, therefore bringing back a sense of belonging. I cannot stress enough how important it is to focus our attention onto what Peter Levine calls the felt sense because it allows us to bypass what is the naturally hard wired "negative bias" of our brain and the fixated narratives we know so well. You have probably noticed that in our sessions together I often invite you back to feeling into your bodies even when, to begin with, we have to spend some time recognising that there are indeed sensations inside of us and that we can begin to feel safe experiencing them.
In this TedX talk by neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, he explains very clearly how powerful this way of working is. When we are somatically present to a positive experience, we can bring it to life turning it into a trait of our personality, hardwired in our brain. Please, have a look at the video, several times if necessary, and begin paying attention to those experiences that give you a sense of being loved, cared for, joyful, worthy of attention and more. Do let me know what you think of it.
One last thought. Our sense of reality is not constructed in a vacuum. It is a conversation between our lived experience and the signals we get from others. This is the process through which, as babies and then children, we all begin to make sense of both the inner and outer worlds by comparing our felt senses with the reactions of those around us. This way we also learn what’s safe and not safe. It is when we feel received, held, seen and heard by an attuned other that we can begin to feel dafe with what we hold inside. It is in a safe connection with a regulated other that we can access our self-regulating mechanisms...when we feel connected, we feel alive.
'Humans carry with them an intrinsic and inalienable place of inner knowing that some call the “true self." A place that, no matter how deeply buried, can always be returned to' (Anna Holtzman)