When you understand the way your body works, you are more able to give it what it needs. Supporting your body and the systems in your body will allow them to function more efficiently. This can make a huge difference in your emotional and physical health.
Working with your body instead of against it is especially important during times of stress and danger. The world is facing a crisis now with the current Covid-19 situation and most of us find our lives disrupted. Our bodies will be affected by the societal stress we are facing.
Let’s take a look at the way our nervous system is wired to handle stress, so that we know how to support it and stay regulated in these trying times!
A Regulated Nervous System
The nervous system is a remarkable communication network that relays messages between the brain and the rest of your body. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the branch of the nervous system responsible for the involuntary functions of the body and influences things like internal-organ function, breathing, blood flow, and the release of hormones.
When you are faced with danger your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are designed to work together to keep you safe. Many people simply view the stress response as a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, but it is actually a bit more complicated than that.
Initially there is a freeze response, which happens before one is able to take action. This is often a short lived state which at times can be so brief that it is barely consciously noticed. In these moments, information is gathered through the senses to assess the danger and begin to process a response.
Next, a sympathetic fight-or-flight response is launched. Stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are released. Your heart beats faster, blood is directed to your muscles, and glucose is released into your bloodstream. In this stage your body is prepared for action and nonessential functions are impaired. After all, when you are running from danger your body is not concerned with digesting your food or solving a complicated math problem. All resources are directed towards survival.
If the action taken does not resolve the threat, the body’s parasympathetic system takes over preparing for immobilization. There is a dulling of sensory input, as well as a drop in heart rate and blood pressure. Dissociation often occurs and may be followed by fainting.
All of these responses are protective measures designed to give you the best chance of survival in dangerous situations. A well regulated nervous system will settle once the danger is over. Heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar begin to normalize. The parasympathetic nervous system will be activated, but in a balanced way. This is often referred to as the “rest-and-digest” state of being and is where healing takes place.
In today’s world the dangers we face are not always clear. Our nervous system often registers chronic stress as a danger. This can include things such as stress at work, relationship trouble, financial concerns, loneliness, and would certainly include our nation's current crisis.
Chronic stress can leave us with a dysregulated nervous system, leaving us stuck in one of these stress responses mentioned above. Since the “danger” lasts too long (or never really passes) our bodies do not settle back into a balanced state. While these stress responses are beneficial temporarily during a time of crisis, we were not meant to stay in them long.
Staying in a stress response is detrimental to our health in many ways. Inflammation, poor digestion, high blood pressure, increased glucose levels may result, and your immune system's response is negatively impacted.
Once we understand this, we can work with our body to either prevent dysregulation or start bringing our nervous system into balance.
Managing Stress and Trauma
By reducing the amount of stress and increasing your capacity to handle unavoidable stress, you can help regulate your nervous system so you can stay balanced.
As you read the following stress management techniques, choose one or two that you would like to try. Make them the easiest things that you can do during this time of unrest. Once you start to experience the benefits of these actions, it will encourage you to try some more techniques!
Grounding is simply bringing your awareness back to the present moment by using awareness of your body and surroundings. This is extremely helpful in dealing with stress since most of our worry is about things in the past or things yet to come.
Simply closing your eyes and paying attention to your breath brings you back to the moment. Intentionally looking at things in your surroundings or noticing sensory input can be an effective tool as well. The key is the intention and awareness behind the action.
For more directed grounding exercise check out the following.
- Box Breathing (also known as Four Square breathing)
- Basic Breathing For Stress Management (from @core360belt)
- Self-Compassion Meditations (with Kristen Neff)
2. Social Connection
Positive social cues are actually good for your physical health. Warm connections actually lead to the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This is often referred to as co-regulation of the nervous system.
It is important to remember that social distancing does not mean social isolation. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need social connection. While we might not be able to do it in person there are many technologies available for us to choose from.
So, connect with a friend...
- with a video call so you can still be face-to-face. (There are many free services such as Zoom, Skype, Google Duo, or Facebook messenger)
- through a phone call.
- by email and text.
Use the extra time you may have at home to catch up with someone you haven’t chatted with in a while. And remember to be intentional about the time you have with those at home. This could be a great time to start having family dinners again, do a game night, read a book together, or build a fire.
Reframing the way we perceive stress is another valuable tool to reducing the impact of chronic stress. When you are unable to change the stressors in your life, reframing your thoughts may actually change how you experience the stress.
When you can not change the situation that is causing you stress, it is important to change the way you interact with the stress in your mind. Shifting your perspective is not an easy thing to do, but it is often possible. Try using the techniques we learned in the Weekly Wellness Challenge #21.
Establishing good self-care routines is extremely important. Each person will be different based on personality, circumstance, and values. It could be spending time with a friend (through technology), or it could be making time for solitude. It could be going out for a run, or taking time to read.
The important thing is to choose things that are life-giving and enjoyable for you. Make sure to include some things that you can do in your everyday life. Then make them a priority, including them in your life on a regular basis.
For more information see this article about Self-Care for Everyone.
5. Healthy Boundaries
Having healthy boundaries can be an extremely important factor in reducing chronic stress. Oftentimes we do not consider what is best for us, simply going along with what others ask of us. This can leave us with little margin; overscheduled and overwhelmed.
It is important to consider what we are willing to give; financially, physically, and even emotionally. After doing so, many of us will find that we need to learn how to say “no” to others without feeling guilty as well.
In this season, healthy boundaries may include limiting the amount of time you talk about the crisis, setting some time aside for solitude (even from those you live with), honoring your desire to practice social distancing, choosing not to engage in social media, etc.
(*You may also have to set healthy boundaries with yourself during this time. One example would be to choose to turn off the news or stay off social media for a time.)
6. Practice Gratitude
Feelings of gratitude are good for our brains, activating the hypothalamus and flooding our brains with the feel-good hormone dopamine. Some studies have found it to decrease the prominent stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure, while increasing heart rate variability.
During difficult times we may not have much that we feel grateful for, but there are some little things that we can take a moment to notice. By intentionally placing our attention on these small things that bring us pleasure we can cultivate gratitude in an authentic way.
7. Acknowledging Our Difficult Emotions
With everything going on in our world there’s a good chance that you may be experiencing a level of stress, anxiety, anger, or depression. Whatever emotions you are experiencing, there is a reason you feel the way you do.
Pushing these difficult emotions aside can have a negative effect on our mental, emotional, and physical well-being. It is important to allow yourself to lean into these painful emotions and accept them without judgement.
Difficult emotions tend to come like a wave. Let them wash over you and then pass on. Resisting them does not tend to be an effective way to handle these types of emotions.
The key is learning to lean into these emotions to the extent you are able to without it dysregulating your nervous system. If you find the intensity of the emotions is too much or you stay in these difficult emotions too long, you may want to reach out for some support.
Many people find working with a therapist allows them to more fully process their emotions, and provides them with the resources they need for their emotional wellbeing.
Let us know what you are doing to handle the stress of this current situation. Last week’s Facebook Live shares what I’ve been doing to stay calm through this situation.
Our desire is to support you during this time of need! Please reach out to us if there is anything we can to encourage you towards wellness during this time.