We find ourselves in remarkable times. In California, and many other places in the world, we are essentially in isolation, with high levels of uncertainty and stress circulating.
I want to take some time to discuss the nervous system, so we can understand better what is happening in our bodies, and implement simple evidence-based techniques to stay calm, present and resilient.
The Autonomic Nervous System
Many of you are familiar with the nervous system, specifically the sympathetic (aka the fight, flight or freeze response) and the parasympathetic (aka the rest and digest response) nervous system. For ease of discussion, I will use the more descriptive and colloquial terms throughout the rest of this post.
Ideally, we spend most of our life in the rest and digest state, only shifting into the fight or freeze state when there is a real threat i.e., a tiger. Then quickly returning to the rest and digest state once the threat has dissipated. The key point here is that fight flight or freeze is designed as a short-term state, with the function of survival.
If a tiger enters the vicinity, the nervous system will quickly assess (below conscious awareness) the most appropriate response - fight (if there is the likelihood of winning), flee (if there is the likelihood of outrunning the threat) or freeze (if fight of flee don't have good odds) so as not to be discovered by the threat. There are a predictable set of physiological responses, that prepare the body for one of these survival actions, that we are all familiar with. Some of which are:
- Shallow breathing (increase oxygen & prepare body for action)
- Inhibition of digestion (don't want to waste energy digesting lunch while fleeing a tiger)
- Tunnel vision (don't get distracted, single focus on escaping threat)
- Increase heart rate and blood pressure (preparing body for action)
*for more on the physiology of the autonomic nervous system click here.
Then once the tiger leaves the area, ideally the body shifts back into rest and digest.
Fight, flight or freeze can look very different for different people. For instance, someone may get agressive and appear self-entitled, while they are in a sympathetic arousal state (the fight part of the flight, flight or freeze). Whereas someone else, may look highly anxious, fidgety and have a hard time being still (the flight part of the fight, flight or freeze). The most difficult to identify in self or in others, is the freeze, which can look and feel like everything is fine, or that someone is in somewhat of a daze or trance.
However, in times such as these, it's safe to assume that most of us are spending more time in the fight flight or freeze state than we normally do. This is understandable, given the uncertainty and pandemic levels of the coronavirus. And given that we have no real idea how long this is going to last, taking extra care to keep ourselves as calm and present, in our rest and digest state, is important.
What is tricky about this time, is that the 'tiger' in this situation is lurking around, we might not be able to see if but know it's out there. However, staying in a fight, flight or freeze response will not help us in this (likely) long-term situation. We are best served by being present, attentive, with full cognitive capacity and calm body (our rest and digest state).
Activating Rest and Digest
There are a range of evidence-based techniques that can help shift us back into a rest and digest state. Taking some time each day, to consciously activate the rest and digest response is a great way to increase your body's resiliency to stress. Think of it as ensuring that your car has gas in it, so in case you need to go anywhere, the car is ready to go.
Some ways to activate rest and digest:
- Let your eyes look around the room that you are in
- Ground into the present moment by taking a moment and identifying:
Five things you can see
Four things you can hear
Three things you can feel
Two things you can smell
One thing you can taste
- Take smooth, slow breaths into your belly
- Limit caffeine
- Reach out (virtually) to a loved-one
- Get quality sleep
- Do a guided meditation
Guided Meditation to Activate Rest and Digest
I have compiled a list of resources of guided meditations to activate the rest and digest system, and calm stress.
This is a great time to explore meditation as a tool for calm. Try different varieties of meditation and find what works best for you right now. There is not one way to meditate, so if a meditation doesn't resonate with you, try another.
If you need more support during this time, I'm available for remote sessions, to activate calm or address issues around sleep.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your free 20 minute consultation call.
Take care of yourself and those around you.