Maintaining Balance in an Unbalanced World
By Nakeya Fields, LCSW, PPSE
The word “Safety” insinuates that we feel able to relax and calm. If asked to describe the words that come to mind when envisioning feeling safe, most would detail concepts involving comfort, nurturing, and predictability. Maybe also warmth, access and contentment. They would probably not have frequent or recurring thoughts about an immediate risk or danger to themselves or others. We are several months into a “Safe at Home” mandatory quarantine to keep us safe from spreading COVID-19, a respiratory illness that has had a huge impact worldwide.
Many of our schools and businesses have closed in-person operations and we no longer interact physically with our friends, colleagues, or that person that we sat next to every morning when we stopped at a local coffee shop, or our favorite yoga teacher/class, etc (insert various experiences we are grieving the loss of). If we do interact, it must be six feet apart and while wearing a mask; missing out on the facial expressions, verbal engagement and healthy socialization that we associate as normative. Those who provide essential services have leaped into an extraordinary world where going to their workplace can cause anxiety for fear of exposure. Boy are they busy too…because they are the only access to the resources that we needed to feel safe in our pre-quarantine routines…so we hoard what they provide for worry it will disappear too.
This quarantine has also extended to travel and pretty much applies to North America as a whole. Thus, many families are now isolated in their homes with each other. Often leaving the home only to get essential items, run essential errands, or to engage in essential outdoor activities with the persons they are quarantined with because to not get fresh air is maddening. Many people are also still working from home. With the children no longer in school but required to complete virtual classes; parents of school-aged kids have also morphed into educators with a curriculum and the deadlines that come with that. Added to the new routine is the fact that more food is being prepared and consumed daily because everyone is home. And the housework! Oh my goodness! Nothing stays clean, there are so many dirty clothes, and…where is the darn remote?!
This present experience of life for most families during the COVID-19 pandemic is not calm and relaxing. It does not feel safe. In fact, it feels life-threatening and has completely disrupted the normative routine we had all established and told ourselves was our version of safety. When feeling unsafe and threatened, the human body’s nervous system has a response. When in crisis, when feeling threatened in some way, most likely we are in a SNS (Sympathetic Nervous System) state, often referred to as the “Fight or Flight” response.
When in this state, the nervous system impacts us by increasing our heart rate, slowing down our digestion…maybe causing nausea, our breath becomes rapid and shallow, and blood rushes away from the brain to the muscles so that they can be prepared to protect us – the loss of the blood making it harder to think or make decisions. Energy is also expended faster so then we become fatigued more frequently and for longer periods because of how hard our body is working to respond to the perceived threat. When in the SNS state, it would make sense that we would feel tired frequently, avoid tasks or be more irritable with those around us.
The nervous system also has a PNS (Parasympathetic Nervous System) state, which many associate with the pause, or an ability to self-regulate and relax in circumstances that may feel unsafe. A way to convince the body to put on the metaphorical brakes and lower the heart rate is to activate the Vagus nerve by engaging in slow, deep belly breaths that help to push the blood back into the gut, lungs and brain so that thinking clears and the gut is reactivated. The gut helps us better digest and absorb nutrients in our food; thus also aiding in clarity of thoughts. The PNS response, while useful to know about and access when feeling overwhelmed, can be utilized to move into a Freeze or Fawn/Disassociate response if the preceived threat doesnt go away fast enough.
In some crisis situations, the person experiencing chronic fear may receive instructions from the brain to completely shut down all functions and not move at all. This is a PNS response where in the brain sent inhibitors to the body to pause in an extreme way with a sort of paralyzation that occurs. The Freeze that inhibits motivation and action. Another PNS response may also be to disassociate, which is wherein which the person feeling fear will submit to the fear, feel as if they are not present, block out the memory or experience or feel disconnected from their own body or mind and stay disconnected as a way to cope. This prolonged PNS response would make sense that persons feeling unsafe in their homes currently and ongoing would feel a need to just freeze, not think or take action on much or just pretend/minimize as if nothing is happening.
Both the SNS and PNS responses assist with survival with an immediate threat, but long term can be taxing on the body if not balanced and working in alternation to support healthy sleep, positive self talk, digestion, and immune system function. With conscious awareness of ourselves, we can learn to balance our responses to help us adjust and thrive, even in crisis situations.
Listed below are five tips that can help us maintain balance in an unbalanced world.
1) Get Your Socialization On!
One way we can balance in times of crisis as humans is socialization–the interactions between pairs, families, and communities. Our social brain, a part of the nervous system called the ventral vagal complex, is activated to further build resilience, when we observe safety cues such as hearing a soothing voice, seeing a smiling face, and noticing calm or caring gestures (Porges, 2011). When activated, the social brain can enable us to be better able to listen to the words of others and connect on an emotional level.
When in quarantine, this socialization strategy can be difficult, but we have the benefit of social media, video chat, and telephones/tablets, and computers. When feeling unbalanced, remember that we have a social brain that assists us to calm. Perhaps we need a safety cue of a soothing voice or smiling face of someone we love to get us out of an unbalanced state? Or better yet, if quarantining with a family member, engage in conversations and play that would benefit all.
2) Let Go of Expectations
Expecting others and things to go a certain way can be the cause of our discomfort. When we expect an outcome regarding something outside of us, invariably we are disappointed when we turn out to not be as psychically inclined as we’d thought. Most of what disrupts our routines is the difference in the today vs. what we remember from before. We can practice present focus and explore letting go of thoughts about what should be happening or might be coming. In this present moment, it is ok to just be. It is ok to expect that today will be a good day and that tomorrow will arrive. We have a choice in the expectations we give our attention to. We can focus on our own outlook and notice the good and what soothes us right now or we can look behind and ahead of us for outcomes we have no control over. There are no grades or requirements for how we get through a crisis. Each family and person is different. The suffering we feel around our performance in these times lie in our own minds and stress responses. Let’s let go of the thoughts about what we should be doing and land where we are – a time for focusing on gratitude for what still is.
3) Remember, Kids Feel It Too
I invite you to notice that the children in our lives can have a difficult time in transitions because they have had less time to develop coping strategies than adults. In this situation, they are now are being asked to learn in new ways, lose their primary source of socialization – the school environment, and now see their parents as a part of a rigid curriculum. Irritability, shutting down, running away, increased isolation, statements that indicate worry about death or safety, nightmares/lack of sleepy are some common issues that might come up for children and indicate they might be having some symptoms of anxiety/depression, etc.
That being said, it does not mean they should be diagnosed with a Mental Health Disorder, but that we can help them recognize it is possible that they are feeling stress, anxiety, sadness and as their parent, model some healthy techniques such a deep belly breathing that we now know activates the vagus nerve, to decrease the feelings and their impact. Another note is the children are in crisis with us. If they do not get to all of their assignments done or follow that new virtual class schedule we are now forced to administer, as parent-teachers, we can get frustrated and irritable – thus showing our own symptoms of stress. Remember, when we all start to be reactive, that the whole family can pause and take a break to regulate. The children will recover. They will catch up if they are unable to focus right now. Breathe through. And try again after the pause.
Although there is much mental stimulation available to us via all forms of media, many of us, with the quarantine limiting our ability to follow our previous routine; have stopped having a routine of sleep. Losing time, having tv show marathons or late night video game challenges can lead to falling asleep in disjointed intervals. It would benefit us to have a bedtime goal and practice a dietary and electronics schedule around sleep. For example, a regular bedtime goal of 10pm means we would stop electronics around 9pm and try not to eat too late after 7pm so that our food digesting doesn’t keep us up and gives us disrupted sleep patterns and irritability the next day. Restful sleep has all sorts of mood benefits and can improve some of the communication and family dynamic issues that can come up while quarantining.
5) Practice Grounding Strategies When Feeling Unbalanced
When our thoughts take us over and it starts to impact our ability to self-regulate, we can establish a routine for when panic or feelings of overwhelm arrive. Most panic attacks last 15-20 mins and then they are over. Remind ourselves that the feelings we are feeling are temporary and practice noticing what our senses are telling us. Put our attention elsewhere on the things that are real and letting go of the extreme focus on the bodies reaction. Remember, the mind is in control and the body helps communicate to the mind by causing havoc until we listen. Practice the following grounding strategy when needed:
(1) Go outside or go near a window and feel the sunshine, if no sunshine, just grab some fresh air, (2) Close your eyes or choose a focal point that can hold your attention, try to pick somewhere lower like your lap or near your toes so that your eyelids can rest, (3) Focus on your breathing, in and out, until you start to feel calmer, (4) Once you are a bit calmer, slowly, while continuing to breathe, look around the room you are in and notice 5 things you can see, (5) Continuing to breathe in and out, notice 4 things you can hear, (6) Breathe in and out and notice 3 things you can feel, (7) Taking your biggest breath yet, notice 2 things you can smell, and finally (8) Notice 1 thing you can taste – be it a memory of a taste or after taking a real bite. Breathe. We’ve got this.
Nakeya T. Fields is a mental health entrepreneur, author, speaker, motivator and business coach based out of Altadena, California. She is an alumna of the University of Southern California where she received a BA in Communication, a Master’s in Social Work and a Pupil Personnel Services Credential in School Social Work and Child Welfare & Attendance. Nakeya is also a Registered Play Therapist – Supervisor and a certified field instructor and clinical supervisor. Nakeya is a 200 HR TT Yoga instructor, certificated in trauma informed yoga therapy and is certified in Mini Yogis Yoga for Kids yoga. She is licensed by the Board of Behavioral Sciences as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the State of California.