I was recently listening to a podcast about Neurocounseling and Biofeedback which reminded me of some truly crucial information to acknowledge through the continuation of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re interested in finding some relief and moments of calm in this crazy time, I hope you stick with me through this post. And if you’d like to listen to the podcast that inspired me, check out NeuroNoodle's January 14th, 2021 post on Spotify or on their website.
When COVID-19 became a true reality in our life, a looming, unknown and uncertain threat entered our world. If the virus itself wasn’t enough, we have also been bombarded with reminders of this threat on a daily basis since its inception. Can we just bring awareness to the process that occurs in our brain and body when we are reminded of a threat?
Our brain is constantly observing our surroundings, making meaning and attempting to ensure our body’s safety. When our brain observes a possible threat, it immediately turns on the body’s threat response system (AKA Fight/Flight/Freeze). It doesn’t even matter if the threat is real, our brain would rather be safe than sorry. That is, after all, how our ancestors have survived all these years. So we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze and noticing all of the uncomfortable physical sensations that come with this. Typically, our brain would then either acknowledge our actual state of safety and go back to baseline, or prompt action to get out of danger. COVID-19 is a chronic stressor though, and with a chronic stressor, our brain continues to say, “I don’t feel safe” and so we stay in our high-alert, threat response mode. If our brain doesn’t know we are safe, then we aren’t going to experience relief.
That is where something called the Vagus Nerve comes into play. The Vagus nerve is the longest nerve in our Nervous system and is truly incredible. It has the ability to send messages from the body to the brain, and from the brain to the body. What does this have to do with anything? Well, as you may know, when we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze, it feels near impossible to talk ourselves down from those fearful, anxious thoughts. So knowing the Vagus nerve can send a message from our body to our brain to calm down, this opens up many more options for us to return to baseline. Engaging in simple breathing techniques can even do the trick.
So if I may, I’d like to lead you through one of those simple tricks to tell your brain you are safe without the use of thoughts.
First and foremost, find a place of stillness and take three of the deepest breaths you have taken all day.
Be kind to yourself and don’t skip this part. Just breathe.
Acknowledge your brain’s desire to go to the absolute worst-case scenario right now. Instead of berating yourself for doing so, bring a sense of kindness here and thank your brain for being observant and wanting to protect you. It has been working overtime lately.
Over the next few minutes, give this breathing technique a try. It’s okay to keep your eyes open at first as you get the hang of it. Then try closing your eyes for a few breath cycles and see what you notice.
Gently place your hands on your lower abdomen
Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4
As you breathe in, feel your abdomen fill with air. Image filling your lower abdomen with air first and fill your body all the way up to your chest.
Hold your breath for a moment or two
Breathe out to the count of 6
Image emptying your body in the opposite direction as you filled it as you feel your abdomen deflate completely
Take a few regular breaths and repeat this practice 5 more times
Notice how you feel
If you started this practice feeling highly anxious, you may feel a bit shaky still. Maybe you notice your heart rate has slowed down a bit, though. And perhaps you even feel calm. Wherever you are, bring a sense of appreciation for all your body does to keep you alive and know that you always have your breath to return to when you need relief from the chaos of life.
If you’d like some additional body hacks to calm your nervous system, check out this video.
Be well and stay kind,
As the banner year of 2020 comes to a close in just a few weeks, I’d like to go through a brief activity to commemorate the good, the bad and the ugly. You may not want to reflect on what was likely a chaotic year, but I encourage you to stick it out. I will keep it simple and take you through step by step. Before you start, go ahead and grab a notebook in case you’d like to write down any notes.
Take one of the deepest breaths you have taken all day and settle into this moment.
Now take a second.
And a third.
Just breathe and allow yourself to take this time away from your schedule.
Think back on the trials you have faced this year.
The challenges. The crises. The losses.
Just sit with these for a moment and acknowledge all that you have survived just in this one year. Bring awareness to the perseverance and strength it has taken to make it through the last 9 months.
Allow accomplishment to wash over you without any justifications.
Try to not brush this away or talk yourself out of it.
Simply allow it to come and be felt.
Reflect on every good thing that has occurred this year as well.
Perhaps working from home has given you additional freedom, comfort or balance in your life. Maybe you learned a new hobby during quarantine. Have you experienced joys from extra family time?
No matter how big or small, write down every blessing that came your way.
Acknowledge all of the good that came with the difficult.
Bring a sense of compassion to each of these steps.
Lovingly allowing yourself to sit and breath.
Acknowledging the pain you have endured while also considering the strength each challenge created.
Remembering the good, the light, that has been experienced even in the darkest of times.
Allowing yourself to be present with every emotion that arises through this exercise as you breath through each one.
Acknowledging the challenges, crises, and losses of 2020 has the power to bring validation, understanding and empowerment to your being. You have survived one heck of a year! It’s okay to be proud of yourself for simply surviving. It is also okay to find joy and peace when you have seen so much suffering.
More and more often now we are hearing about the importance of having a strong immune system and overall health in general. Media has become hooked on buzz words and fad diets that promise you the world if only you follow these simple steps. It’s the same stuff spewed to us time and time again - New fads but the same general idea.
New research has started coming out that gives us hope, and perhaps a new promise. I’m talking about the promise of true, lasting, impactful health that you actually have control over. At this point, you may be wondering why a mental health professional is writing to you about physical health in the first place. Well, this research I am talking about has a direct impact on our mental health. The human body is a complex machine; every organ and cell working and being impacted by all other organisms in the body. This is why the concepts of Holistic Wellness and Healing are so important – they take into consideration the entire body and how the inner workings of the body are interacting with one another.
In this post, I want to focus on a crucial aspect of our mental health that hadn’t been considered until recent years – Our gut health. Without getting all sciencey, I am specifically talking about the bacteria living inside our intestines. This bacteria includes both helpful and unhelpful bacteria which ebb and flow depending on what we eat. New research has been coming out which has found correlations between the diversity of helpful/good bacteria in our intestines and our mental health. This may seem like a foreign concept, but it actually makes a lot of sense when we realize that the neurotransmitters (such as Serotonin and GABA) that impact our moods are created in our large intestines. If you want to learn more on this topic, check out this video.
One example of the powerful relationship between the gut and the brain comes from an article found in World Psychiatry in February of 2020. This article wrote about a recent study which found therapeutic potential in certain strains of probiotics (A.K.A. good bacteria) in the treatment of Bipolar Disorder. In this study, the individuals who were given these particular strains of probiotics saw significant decreases in severe manic episodes as compared to individuals which received a placebo.
If you get anything from this post, let it be this – The food you put into your bodies has a direct impact on your overall well-being, including your mental health. Over the next few months, I will be going through an extensive training to learn more about this topic so I can better help you and my clients work towards their mental health goals in the most holistic way possible. I am excited to embark on deeper learning so I can bring this knowledge and understanding into my counseling practice. For any and all clients who would like to work towards holistic health and are interested in how their diet and lifestyle may be impacting their mental health, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I would be happy to answer questions and to simply start the conversation.
I often have clients express frustration with themselves for believing they are unable to ‘talk themselves out’ of anxiety. Since I hear this type of statement on a regular basis, I would image many others believe this to be true as well. I would like to take some time right now to set the record straight and let you in some facts that are rarely taught.
As I have discussed in previous posts, anxiety is the body’s protective mechanism. When the brain perceives the body to be in danger, it sends out both physical signals and cognitive signals in an attempt to save you from whatever danger it believes you to be in. These signals can look like ‘what if…’ thoughts, rapid heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing, etc.. These signals are strong and uncomfortable…for a good reason. Your brain is doing everything in its power to get you away from the threat. If these signals were pleasant, we probably wouldn’t be as apt to get into action, right?
And you’ve probably noticed that it feels impossible to simply talk yourself out of these sensations. Well, let's take a minute to think about this from the perspective of science and biology. Say you are out and about and come across a tiger. Your brain may immediately send out those uncomfortable signals as a warning to tell you that you should probably get out of that situation. What might happen if you were able to talk yourself out of fleeing from the potential danger? What if you could simply say, “Wow! He looks so cute and gentle. I am sure this tiger won’t do anything to harm me”. You get the picture, right?
From a biological perspective, our brains are wired to protect our body at all costs. If we could talk ourselves out of being afraid of truly dangerous situations, the human race probably wouldn’t last too long as a species. So, the next time you find yourself feeling frustrated for feeling anxious, pause for a minute, take 5 deep breaths, and remind yourself that your brain is simply trying to protect you. Feeling anxious does not mean that you are weak or incapable; it means your protective mechanism works really well and may even be in overdrive for any number of reasons.
My challenge to you: When you notice you are feeling anxious, instead of fighting the anxiety and pushing it as far away as possible – take some time to become curious about it. Ask yourself:
“What might my brain be afraid of right now?”
“Is there an actual threat near me?”
“Where do I feel the most tension in my body?”
“What do I need in this moment?”
Be well and take care,