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Cultivating Calm Amidst a Storm

In this turbulent time of a pandemic, we are experiencing a span of anxiety and turmoil. Families, communities, and nations are thrust into commotion. The “healthy” practices of social distancing may cause or exacerbate painful feelings of social isolation. Know this, you are not alone. You have community and we have each other. Right now, self-care and safety are paramount. While we make a conscious effort to care for ourselves, we can also increase our awareness and compassion for others. In this challenging time, be gentle with yourself. Be kind with yourself. Be patient with yourself, even as anxieties and fear arise. You have the strength within to be the calm amidst a storm.

The relentless influx of information about the Coronavirus can cause our nervous system to be overstimulated and overtaxed. On top of it, our evolving knowledge of the virus can trigger us to feel that we are unsafe as new facts emerge. When we feel our safety is threatened, we naturally experience internal states of fear, anxiety and panic. These internal states can steer our nervous system into over-drive, where we experience acute and chronic sympathetic activation, which is our nervous system’s response to stress. Experiencing feelings of fear and anxiety moves us into primal states of fight, flight, freeze and flop. Importantly, each of us has our very own nervous system, programming, and responses to stress. It is important to honor our feelings and our nervous system’s response with compassion and gentleness.

What is even more challenging is that the stressor is microscopic virus with a two-to-ten-day incubation period– a stressor that is simultaneously real and surreal. The word, pandemic, feels surreal and real. What happens to our mental and emotional state when we experience this kind of fear and anxiety? We have a greater tendency to be in our thinking mind and ruminate. A microscopic stressor is not a typical stressor like a lion in the house, it is hidden, and there are inherent levels of surprise and uncertainty. When we feel uncertain we may retreat into our imagination and play out all of the worst-case scenarios. It is important to identify ways to remain safe physically, mentally and emotionally through a stressful and rapidly evolving situation. How can we calm our mind, body, and nervous system in the presence of a global health crisis?

1. Allow time for transitioning to the new world normal. We are being told by local, state and the federal government to stay home, stay put and practice social distancing. The only time to leave home is for essentials. As this new normal sets in, take the time for transitioning. We are transitioning to on-line working, schooling and connecting from our homes, so set realistic expectations. Know that productivity will be different as we settle into this new normal. We need time to become familiar with new routines, schedules and practices. Have patience with yourself and others as we begin to move into the new world normal.

2. Ride the waves of emotion. Our emotions evolved for us to take action. Recognizing the presence of emotion is our very first step in understanding our physiological and safety needs. In addition, at any moment, we can simultaneously experience many emotions at once. When we identify our underlying emotions, we begin to understand our motivations, reactions, and behaviors. When we identify our emotions, we have the awareness of how emotions drive our experience. Imagine walking into your twenty-fifth surprise birthday party. You might simultaneously feel surprise, joy, anxiety, and gratitude, all at once. We can have the awareness to discern the emotion we would like to drive our experience and the emotion we would like to pass though us like a wave. An emotion is a chemical reaction of an experience. Thus, an emotion is a process, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, like a wave. “Riding the waves of the emotion,” means allowing emotions to exist without judging or desiring the emotions to be different. Allow your waves of emotion to exist like an ocean. Sometimes emotions are more choppy and other times emotions are smoother. Just realize that emotional waves are part of the human experience. Remind yourself, I am caught in a current of emotion and this is a human experience. Or, I am a human experiencing waves of emotion.

3. Name it until you tame it. I recently learned this practice in a mediation class with Jack Kornfield, and my dear friend Debbie Steinberg Kuntz, MFT, founder of Bright & Quirky, uses it in her therapy practice. When we name all the challenges we are experiencing that allows the dragons of the mind to come to light and they are not as scary. Give voice to the pain points within yourself, your children, elders, and loved ones. Naming the “dragon” inherently reduces pain and suffering and calms the nervous system response. Sometimes naming can be as simple as one word or phrase: “logistics overload” “disaster thinking” “I fear illness.” You can also be an active compassionate sounding board as someone shares their fears. Listening with compassion helps them and you to tame your responses to both real and imagined fear.

4. Understand you default stress state. Again, when we experience stress, we can go into the primal protective responses of fight, flight, freeze and flop. If we can be aware that activation of our sympathetic nervous system can present as over-activity (fight/flight) and under-activity (freeze/flop), then we better understand our internal response to a stressor. Importantly, realize that each of us has our very own default state. For example, I am a fleer, where my nervous system response requires more movement and physicality in response to stress. Thus, I take local neighborhood walks twice a day to reduce my anxiety response (keeping a six-foot distance with neighbors, of course). By contrast, my son is a freezer, so taking a walk is off-limits to his physical, mental and emotional response. He would rather calm his nervous system by reading a fantasy or fiction book. Identifying your personal primal stress reaction provides insight on how to calm your nervous system and builds your resilience.

5. Everyone has their very own nervous system response. We are unique individuals and each of us has our very own nervous system response. Our nervous system response is woven with our sensory perception, genetics, emotionality, and our autobiographical memories of our experiences. All of these components drive our behaviors in the present moment. Thus, if you have a child that has high sensory receptivity they may have greater sensory receptivity and processing during stressful times. Understanding their nervous system response is critical in helping guide them to calmer waters. Everyone processes stress differently. Identifying common nervous system patterns may help you identify strategies on how to understand your way of processing stressful information. Greater sensory sensitivity can mean that small things, like calling out to a child who is finishing reading a sentence, or a child seeing bright lights or hearing car alarms may result in unexpected outbursts. For families, it is paramount to not push a specific coping mechanism on child, since it may be not helping their particular nervous system response. Rather investigate your child’s nervous system response and help them find ways to cope with their response to stress including identifying the triggers and resources to bring them back to a sense of peace.

6. Identify resources. This is a powerful practice. I recently learned this in my trauma informed yoga training with Sarit Rogers. A resource is a healthy support that induces positive experiences of safety and eases the nervous system. Some of my resources include:

o sipping warm cup of fresh mint tea

o petting my dog Star

o walking in my neighborhood and in nature

o being in nature

o listening to music

o dancing

o lying underneath my weighted blanket and resting my eyes

o putting on my noise canceling head phones to block out sounds that activate my nervous system

o listening to a guided meditation

o chatting with my best friend

o taking a warm bath

o reading InStyle magazine

Take time and write a list of your resources. Have your child/children write and or verbalize a list of their resources. Share your resources with one another. This way you have supports in place that help balance your and their nervous systems when riding out the storm.

7. Be an agent of compassion. Currently tension is high and nervous systems are heightened. We forget our friend, Compassion. We get short-tempered and lose compassion for ourselves and others. Be kind to yourself, especially if you are having an emotional reaction to the stream of news or if you feel your productivity is slipping as you review your to-do list. Find your friend Compassion and give yourself a hug. Remember, this is an international emergency, not a productivity sprint. We often are hard on ourselves. Remember when a stream of negative self-talk arises, pause and ask yourself, would I say this to my best friend? The answer is most likely no. So, treat yourself as you would your very best friend. As for compassion for others, realize that other people, including family members, all tend to respond differently. Have compassion for the way they respond to the pandemic. As I mentioned above, we each have our very own nervous system response, and we have our own ways of coping. So if someone responds differently than you, realize it is their response. It has nothing to do with you. Greet them with compassion. We can all use a giant hug -- and the social distancing is sure making that a challenge.

8. Laughter. Thank God for Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu for helping pass the time by. Or, thank the inventors. Hands down, we are in a time that we can stream almost about anything. The other night, our family watched Billy Madison, and that helped calm my and my family’s nervous system. Laughter activates social engagement, releases positive endorphins, brings joy, soothes the nervous system and stimulates emotional connection. Find a few funny flicks and release those deep belly-laugh-induced endorphins.

9. Bring in new routine and order into your daily life at home. Now with all of us working and schooling at home, we needed a new daily routine. Each person in your household might want to create new daily schedules to create order amidst the

chaos— and each person can create a schedule in a way that makes sense for their own brain. This way, even if we veer off schedule, we each have a daily roadmap and set of activities for our mental, physical, social, and emotional engagement. Make sure pleasurable activities are woven into your daily plan.

10. Physical distancing + social connection. Call, FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype with family, friends, and colleagues to keep up the emotional and social connection. We know that the greatest predictor for life outcome is social and emotional connection. Encourage your children to connect with their friends and family members. Remember that social connection may be one of your children’s resources. Let them connect.

11. Guided meditation can help regulate an overtaxed nervous system. Guided meditation develops our capacity to self-regulate, builds positive neural plasticity, enhances our awareness, increases compassion and reinforces positive behavioral responses based on a greater metacognition. There are a wealth of studies supporting how meditation produces positive neurobiological and neurophysiological effects including brain expansions, balancing neurotransmitters, and increasing alpha brain waves – all of which correspond with a calmer brain. Many people meditate in the morning or practice a few shorter meditations throughout the day. This can make the difference of building a calmer internal state. There are a number of meditation Apps and recordings like Sounds True, Calm, and Spotify. As you are able over time, try to memorize which meditation techniques work best for you, such as tuning in only to the sounds in your environment. That way, if your phone loses battery, you can still meditate.

12. Reach out to professionals for support. Whether your support is a psychologist, a coach, or a teacher there are people there to catch you as the waves rise. Realize there are trained psychologists you can call, and hotlines where a caring and compassionate people are there to catch you through the tidal waves. If you are struggling, do not hesitate to reach out to a listening ear through the National health hotline.

I wish you, your family and the entire world safety, health and peace.

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