During this time of Covid19 and quarantine, I can feel stressed parts of me shutting down. Honestly, I would love to just sit and knit ALL day. Sometimes even doing that feels difficult. I hear myself say, “Why not just take a nap?”
How about you?
Do you feel stressed parts of you that want to run, hyper-focus on a mindless task, sleep, or escape?
These sensations are all completely normal. Your nervous system is trying to stay well. Yes, that’s right. All of these feelings are ways the nervous system tries to keep you in balance.
It sounds like a bad idea – to shut you down when you are struggling to have enough energy. But from your body's perspective it makes perfect sense.
Here's how your survival mechanism works:
With so much personal and collective change, bad news, required planning for simple things, isolation, fear, confusion and frustration, your Sympathetic Nervous System is likely on high alert. This means that your body is set up to fight, flee or freeze more often than usual.
Your body cannot physically withstand this constant “juicing” of the nervous system. So too, the mind overloads, weary from feeling the physical need to respond without a clear and actionable danger.
How many times this week have you caught yourself wondering what you were just doing or what you planned to do? Your brain is working overtime just trying to think your way through so many internal and external messages. If you generally experience chronic fear and anxiety, you already know how this feels.
Here’s the important news: Because we are all descended from survivors with the same innate survival mechanisms in place, eventually your wise nervous system reacts to this increase in stress by shutting things down a bit.
By recognizing your own body’s response and knowing how to welcome it, you can save yourself a great deal of depressed suffering!
So how can you know if your nervous system is trying to take care of you in this way? The sensation of the body moving from a Sympathetic Nervous System response into a Dorsal Vagal stress response is typified by a shut down. This shut down provides necessary relief for your physical body. From an emotional/behavioral perspective though, this Dorsal Vagal stress response looks like less activity, more inertness, and physically or emotionally shutting the world out. In animals, this looks like “playing dead.”
Here are 6 steps to use if you feel yourself moving into a stress shutdown.
- Simply appreciate your wise body’s rest response. Do not make a mental or moral meaning of this reaction. For example, avoid thoughts like: “Here I go into one of my depressions!” or “I should be doing a million things; I’m useless!”
- If you hear self-criticism, take a moment to breathe and remind yourself that this “down” feeling is just a brief physiological break. Imagine you were running and gasping for air, you would stop and take a minute to recover. This is also a physical response. Allow your body the benefit of a rest.
- Set your alarm if you are actually reclining and napping. Give yourself a time that feels reasonable to you. This may be from 10 minutes to a night’s sleep, depending.
- Once you have allowed your body to rest and recover, state and act upon: “Now I get to gently move.” In order to bring yourself into a nervous system state that is compatible with feeling better, you will need to bring in some physical movement. Practice saying “Now I get to gently move” to yourself whenever you need even a bit of energy. Movement is key, because if you allow your mind to go into a story when you are in a Dorsal Vagal stress response, your story will not likely be hopeful, productive, motivated or social. Your thinking is not broken, by the way. It is normal.
- Gently move to bring in a little energy to your body. This movement can be as simple as imaging movement or seeing “light”. You may, if it’s comfortable, breathe a bit more deeply, listen to music, wiggle your extremities or make a face. Whatever feels possible for you, patiently allow your body to accept it.
- Especially during this pandemic, your next step is to do something healthy and pleasant or a little fun. This is a good time to hug a pet, do some writing, draw or doodle, move your body, cook, play music or laugh.
It may feel difficult to allow yourself some pleasure or brightness at this time when life around you feels dire. But it is crucial.
The sensation of lightness in your body is not to be taken lightly.
Feeling at least a moment of well being each day is also a crucial part of your modern survival mechanism. Even small feelings of social connection, love, wholeness or belonging help your nervous system to grow strong and resilient. Practice by feeling these positive sensations occasionally throughout your day by talking, thinking or writing about them.
A healthy nervous system is a true treasure. Be kind and patient to your amazing body as we together move through this pandemic.
There are many more tips to move out of worry and into stress relief and self-confidence in my book. Check it out here.