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.