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.