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,