Responding to Fear

In these scary times, I’m seeing a lot of messages on social media to choose love over fear. While this is beautiful and speaks to a desire for all of us to find our best selves in this crisis, it feels a bit simplistic for this time. Sometimes we are going to have responses that don’t reflect exactly who we want to be in this moment, and it’s important not to let that lead to self judgement. The trick is figuring out how to get back to the self we recognize and want to be after we’ve experienced a flood of fear.

We are all going to feel overwhelmed by fear at times during this crisis; when we’re reading the news about impending financial catastrophe, learning someone we love is sick, or fearing for our own health and safety. Our nervous system can become flooded with messages of fear and we can go into shutdown mode, or fight or flight mode.

Our autonomic nervous system, on a very basic level, has two parts to it—the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is where our fear responses originate. It is the “fight or flight” response, and it is evolutionarily helpful—when the tiger is running toward you, your sympathetic nervous system takes over by putting all your energy into getting away from it. The dorsal vagal branch of the parasympathetic nervous system is the one that leads us to shut down, that feeling of being alone and dissociated. I think of it as being like a bug that when poked curls up and plays dead. What we want is to get back to the ventral vagal response of the parasympathetic nervous system—this is the part of our nervous system that helps us feel calm and connected with others. The problem is that in moments like the one we are currently in, it’s easy to find ourselves stuck in a sympathetic nervous system or dorsal vagal response, particularly for folks who have experienced traumatic environments in their past.

It’s important to know that you aren’t doing something WRONG if you feel fear. The important question is, how can we move out of fear and panic into a place of calm and readiness for connection? The first step is noticing what is actually happening. The more we pay attention to our responses, the more control we have in how we handle them. When it first became clear that coronavirus was going to take a massive toll on our society as a whole, I started noticing pains in my chest. Not normally being an anxious person, I didn’t immediately recognize them for what they were—intense anxiety. Once I was able to identify the feeling, I could make a choice about how to respond. For me, taking deep breaths is very helpful—it’s one of the things that has been proven to help engage the parasympathetic nervous system. For some folks, discharging their energy through exercise, dancing, or even just jumping up and down can be helpful. Finding a way to engage with the body, through breathing, exercise, or gentle stretching, is a wonderful way to calm ourselves and get our ability to connect with others back online. Being outside in nature and engaging in play are other ways to activate this ventral vagal response.

One of the hardest things about this time is the way that connecting with other people has become so different. Our nervous systems co-regulate, which means that if I am with someone in distress, just my calm presence can help their nervous system de-escalate. This is harder to do when we can’t actually be with others. We have to get creative in finding ways to tend to our nervous systems right now. My daughter has been taking a live online yoga class, and both the movement and the sense of community are helpful for her self-regulation. I’m so heartened by all the ways people are finding to connect and create community, even when we can’t be physically present together.

Please don’t use your inability to achieve a perpetual sense of calm as a bludgeon with which to beat yourself. We are all moving in and out of various states of nervous system arousal, at a much greater rate than most of us are used to. Our nervous systems are flexible—they can help us on this ride. There are tools to help you—engage with them when you can, but be gentle with yourself when this feels difficult. This is a new experience for many of us, and we are learning.

Riding the Waves

I thought I’d been handling everything so well. Like everyone, I’d been scrambling to figure out how to continue my work while practicing social distancing, which for me meant figuring out HIPAA compliant video conferencing options, adding telemedicine to my license, and contacting clients about alternatives to meeting in person. I’d managed to stock the fridge and assign my homebound kids meals to prepare, written daily missives to them about chores to do and ways to stay active, all while keeping up with the laundry/cleaning/extra disinfecting. I’d managed to make daily contact with my baby boomer parents, making sure they were heeding the warnings to stay inside. I was riding high on the wave, getting things done, Surfin’ USA, baby.

And then the wave crashed. All it took was some extra eyerolls from my teenager, and suddenly all my practiced calm came crashing down. Tears filled my eyes, and I stormed into my room, slamming the door like I was a teenager myself. I cried and cried, realizing that my tears weren’t about the contemptuous teen body language I was on the receiving end of (I’m relatively used to that), but that it was the catalyst tipping me into the well of feeling I’d been avoiding.

The well was filled with the what-ifs about the future—What if we get sick? What if we don’t have enough money to ride this out? What if this lasts over a year? What if my business can’t survive this? What if my parents can’t survive this? They are the same what-ifs swirling around in everyone’s mind right now, even if they are soldiering on and just getting stuff done. And I realized that in there with all those what-ifs was some mighty, heavy grief. And I had to acknowledge that grief or it was going to spill over into everything else in my life.

We are all riding the waves right now. Sometimes the sea feels calm, almost normal, and we’re just paddling along, doing our thing. Then a tsunami crests over our heads and crashes down, and we are left soaking wet and gasping for air. Part of being able to ride these waves is to be able to expect the tsunamis. Life is different now, and our emotions are going to be more volatile then we are used to. I was caught be surprise by the depth of my emotion because I was pretending that my emotional reactions were typical for me. But they’re not. They are big, and I need to make a little more room for them. I need to give myself time to cry, to laugh, to write, to nap, to talk to friends and loved ones about my fear and sadness.

Making room for these feelings doesn’t mean being taken over by them. If we can actually honor the range of emotions we are feeling right now, we are less likely to be blindsided by them, and less likely to spew them on others.

After my meltdown, my son came knocking on my bedroom door, asking to talk. We were able to acknowledge that we are both needing different things right now, and agreed to try to be more careful in how we treat each other. That little bit of connection helped me to pull myself back up to the surface, to feel the sadness and let it go. My awareness that the ocean is different now, and requires something different of me, helps me to carry on and maintain the relationships that sustain me.

Self Care–it isn’t just pedicures and cashmere wraps

“Self Care” seems to be one of those buzzy phrases that has been showing up in the culture for a while now. Often it seems to be connected to some act of consumption–paying for a fancy haircut, or buying yourself flowers. While these things are great (don’t get me wrong, we all love a little pampering at the salon), it sort of misses the point. It perpetuates that idea that caring for oneself is something only accessible to those with money, and that an act of self care is an act of consumerism.

Radical self care isn’t about getting pedicures or buying the latest gold leaf laced face cream. It’s about doing the things that you need to do in order to be functioning at your best. And sometimes, it isn’t particularly fun. I swim three mornings a week because I need to do it for my body to feel functional. But when I’m pulling on my swimsuit at 6 am, I am definitely not in a state of bliss or joy. However, I know that after I swim I will feel energized, and my body will thank me. So I keep doing it as a gift to myself, a gift that requires effort.

Self care can manifest in many ways. It can be the act of saying “no” to yet another responsibility. It can be the act of saying “yes” to something that might take you outside your comfort zone. It can be giving yourself the gift of time–time to take a walk, or read a book, or just sit on the deck and breathe. It can be feeding your body with nourishing food, moving your body, or letting your body rest. It is the message we send to ourselves that we are worthy of care and nurturing, and that we are listening deeply to that inner voice that is letting us know every moment what we need.

Basic mindfulness practices for kids

What is mindfulness? Basically, it’s the practice of bringing your attention to whatever is happening in the moment. It isn’t about changing your experience (although often when you begin to bring your full attention to your experience it begins to shift), but about gently noticing what is happening. Teaching children mindfulness is a powerful way to help them be less overwhelmed by their thoughts and emotions. Studies have shown that mindfulness helps to mitigate the effects of bullying, helps with focus and attention, and improves social skills. It helps kids build awareness of their own experience, and ultimately to exercise some control over their experience.

There are some simple mindfulness exercises that parents can practice with their kids. Here are a few:

1.       Body Scan—lying down, tighten all your muscles as hard as you can for a few seconds, then let them all relax. Starting at your head, bring your attention to various parts of your body, noticing how they feel. Notice how your breath feels moving in and out of your body.

2.       Glitter Jar—put a spoonful of glitter in a jar filled most of the way with water. Shake it up, then set it down. Watch how the glitter swirls around, but how as it sits, it starts to settle. Explain how this can happen with your mind as well. Practice watching the glitter settle to the bottom, giving it your full attention.

3.       Gong—ring a bell or chime and listen with your eyes closed for as long as you can hear the sound, then raise your hand when you can’t hear it anymore.

4.       Eat the raisin—take a few breaths to bring yourself into the moment, then put a single raisin in your mouth. Notice how it feels on your tongue, how it tastes. Slowly chew the raisin, paying close attention to every moment of how it feels to chew it, how it tastes, and how long its flavor lasts in your mouth after swallowing it.

5.       Mindful breathing—set a timer for 1 minute (or more, if you have practiced this for a while). Close your eyes, and breathe in and out. Notice how your breath feels going out, and how it feels going in. Is it cool? Warm? How does your chest feel? Does your body feel any differently at the end then it did at the beginning? Was the experience unpleasant? Pleasant? There isn’t a “right” way to breathe–just try to notice your experience.

Mindfulness practices are exactly that—practices. They need to be done regularly to be of benefit. Spend a minute or two mindfully breathing before dinner or at bedtime. Incorporate ringing a bell into some part of your day. Find a way to weave the concept of mindfulness into your everyday life so that it becomes something you can turn to when faced with challenging circumstances or overwhelming emotions. Just like teaching your kids manners or hygiene, teaching mindfulness can be a part of raising a confident kid who knows how to navigate both their inner and outer worlds. 

 

7 ways to approach uncomfortable conversations with your kids

When it comes to talking to our kids about the “hard stuff” like sex, drugs, bullying, porn, racism, or the many other issues facing our society today, many parents find themselves shying away from difficult conversations. They worry that by bringing up these issues they will be introducing their children to inappropriate topics, or bringing up something their child has never heard of or thought about. While it is possible that taking a fairly pro-active approach to discussing difficult things with your kids might bring up new topics, this allows you to control the conversation and present things in keeping with your own value system. It prevents having to do after-the-fact damage control following little Jimmy’s playground conversation with an older kid about where babies come from. And it gives your kid the message that you are someone they can come to when they need to talk about hard things. Continue reading “7 ways to approach uncomfortable conversations with your kids”

Walking Toward Fear

We live in a time when uncertainty is high. Our entire country feels on edge, politically, economically, and emotionally. At times it feels as if something is going to blow up at any moment.  It is no wonder that anxiety disorders are increasingly prevalent, and that many of us struggle to keep our fears at bay. But the more we try to control our anxiety, to tamp down our fear, the more it catches us off guard. There are times we awaken at 3 am with a feeling of dread in our stomach, or times when our thoughts begin to race and our heart begins to pound, and we’re stopped dead in our tracks by anxiety. Continue reading “Walking Toward Fear”