How are you doing? We are in the midst of a global pandemic, but I want to know how you are doing. A simple question during simple times so I thought I’d get complicated and check in on you. Being a former NY’er, “Joey” from Friends with his Brooklyn accent and flirty smile and head nod saying, “How you doin’?” comes to mind immediately. A little moment of comic relief is welcomed. But really, how are you doing?
Checking in on people during tough times, emergencies, or a crisis seems obvious, but how about checking in on the self? Not so much. The state of the state feels a little like panic right now and this is to be expected. The uncertainty of the virus, its course, who will get it, who will survive it, and who won’t, is a perfect recipe for anxiety. Anxiety loves uncertainty so it will spread faster and more virulently than the real thing. A friend said to me today that she is using social distancing not only to prevent the spread of the physical virus, but also the emotional one being passed around. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but she might have something there…
Today is Monday, March 16, 2020, and I live in central Florida. There are 136 reported cases here and that number is the result of a doubling just over the weekend. I read on NPR the U.S. is ten days to two weeks behind Italy, which would seem to indicate that we have not really begun to feel the impact of this pandemic. Did your heartrate just go up? It should have so let’s talk about how to handle this week and upcoming month.
One: Tune into yourself. This will take tremendous energy, I know, but it is critical. If you have followed me at all, you know how much I talk about our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and how it mobilizes when we experience threat or fear. Well, it should be in overdrive now, and rightly so. As a review (skip to next paragraph if you got it), our SNS is triggered by some kind of threat. It can be an actual threat, like finding out your neighbor has the virus, or it can be a thought, like wondering what you would do if your neighbor gets the virus. That’s the tricky part of the SNS, a simple (or not so simple) thought can and will trigger a response, and then your body gets involved. Our bodies are designed to survive and when our minds experience threat, the body prepares to survive via our fight or flight response. The bodily reactions you will experience are elevated heart and respiratory rate, sweating, tunnel vision, gut disturbance, and dry mouth. ALL of these symptoms are the result of the body mobilizing power—the heart and respiratory rate increase to send more oxygenated blood to your big “fight or flight” muscles (legs and arms), you sweat to both cool the elevated body down and become slippery to your opponent, the tunnel vision is from the need to focus on the threat, you experience a disturbance in the gut (over-using the toilet) because the blood that was once there has been redistributed to those big muscles, and the dry mouth is because, again, you need that fluid elsewhere. It is a brilliant system with an immediate response. The problem is, unless you are escaping a Sabre Tooth Tiger, most of the physiology we experience is more of a hindrance than a help and costs of loads of energy. But here’s how you use it to help. Many times, we become elevated or have an SNS response and are NOT aware of it. Because it is about survival, your brain doesn’t want you to stop it so you slide right into upset or even panic before you can realize it. USE your physiology to let you know your level of upset has increased. The moment you feel physically different, off, shaky, or jittery, TUNE IN and ask yourself, “How are you doing?”
Two. Take a deep breath. Breathing is the gateway drug to relaxation and calming down. We naturally breathe as things begin to calm but you can induce more calm by intentionally breathing. It is simple, easy, free, and effective. Practice breathing, a lot. I practice breathing throughout the day, making it a very reliable tool. Why practice something you do ALL the time, you ask? Well, I bet you can run to the end of your driveway or if you can’t run, you can walk. But what if you wanted to run or walk a 5K or a marathon? You would need to train your running/walking mechanism. You naturally run or walk, but to use it as a tool, you have to train it. Breathe more, lots more, and it will start to be a more effective grounding and calming agent.
Three. Protect your MIND. This will also take a great effort but will be worth it, I promise. The amount of information out there right now is staggering, upsetting, and some of it is flat out wrong. The biggest problem though it that it is also chemically addicting. The burst of brain chemicals and hormones we release from our scrolling is over-powering. Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter released when we engage on our devices and it packs a punch. NO ONE is immune to it so we all must tune in and then turn off. Pay attention to what your MIND is consuming—just like you pay attention to what your body consumes. A bad diet, mentally or physically, has consequences. The more you scroll, read, and scroll, the greater the negative influence and the greater the cost to your system. I know it is scary, I’m scared, too, but we have to find a way to limit and take care of ourselves. As you find yourself scrolling uncontrollably, ask yourself, “How are you doing?” Check in so you can figure out what to do for yourself.
Four. Recover. The other half of our Autonomic Nervous System is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). It is the “balancing arm” of the SNS and is designed to help you restore energy after fleeing the Sabre Tooth Tiger. Most of us don’t do this part and mostly because we don’t know we need to. We used to have lives with built-in recovery, like no internet or smart phones, and when we came home from school at 3:30 pm, we had maybe an hour of homework and then nothing to do. TV had a few channels and so we were actually bored, which is recovery. Now, there is always something to do, a device to scroll on, a complaint to make, and a fight to pick. I have seen a lot of comments on social media about using this forced down time to reconnect and while it sounds campy, it is TRUE! Find a way to refuel and restore your energy. You are going to spend new and excess energy on COVID-19 in the form of stress, worry, upset, and even illness. Everyone will eventually know someone with it and many of us will know someone who doesn’t survive it. We have to shore up our mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual resources so we can get through this in the best possible way. These are extraordinary days, weeks, and most likely months coming up. Please take extraordinary measures to check in with yourself, so you can check in with those that need you, and so we can all get through this together. Tune in, breathe, protect your mind, and recover. Then help someone else do the same. Reach out if you need help, please. Because this is scary, our tendency to ignore the self is high. Over-ride that and everyone will benefit.