When it comes to responding to sudden danger, the human body is a marvel. Moments after a threat to survival is detected, the nervous system’s hardwired fight-or-flight response engages and our bodies undergo a series of physiological changes, all designed to keep us alive. Pain perception decreases and blood thickens in order to clot more quickly, as the body readies itself for injury. Stress hormones speed up heart rate and respiration, dilate pupils and blood vessels, and increase muscle tension to make us temporarily stronger and faster.
Having evolved over many millennia, this stress response system is highly effective at responding to acute threats by either fighting off or fleeing from danger. However, things become trickier when the danger isn’t one that can be successfully resisted or escaped. Things become trickier still when the danger isn’t temporary, but is instead chronic and long-lasting. Without a way to resist or run away from the threat, the body continues to be flooded with stress hormones designed to fuel a response, despite being unable to take action. If the crisis persists for days, weeks, even months, the nervous system can become overwhelmed and disorganized in its response. Over time, chronic stress in this form takes a tremendous toll on the body and mind.
We’re facing just this sort of crisis with the pandemic. Over the past few weeks, I’ve observed two different ways chronic stress is affecting people. Many are finding themselves stuck in a state of persistent nervous system hyperarousal as the body continues to release stress hormones designed to provoke action. Others are experiencing a freeze state, which the nervous system initiates when fighting or fleeing danger aren’t possible. The body, overwhelmed by the inability to resist or escape the threat, begins to shut down.
Indications of a hyperaroused nervous system include feeling constantly on edge or unable to relax or sit still, difficulty sleeping, muscle tension, racing heart or restricted breathing. I’ve also observed over-consumption of news or social media as another warning sign of being in chronic fight-or-flight mode during the pandemic.
Alternatively, feeling exhausted, having difficulty concentrating, lack of motivation, low energy, difficulty doing things that used to feel easy and losing oneself in books or television programs for hours are indications of being overwhelmed and shut down. A total avoidance of news and information because it feels like “too much” is also an indication of being in a freeze state.
Whether you’re feeling unable to sit still or unable to get yourself off the couch, the need is the same: finding ways to soothe your nervous system. Re-establishing a sense of safety usually involves providing your body with physical comfort. Your body is likely to need this type of care on a daily basis as you continue to navigate the many stresses and challenges of the pandemic.
If you’re feeling like you can’t sit still, it can be helpful to begin with physical movement before using more passive strategies. If you’re feeling frozen, the reverse is true: beginning with less active strategies can help reset your nervous system, which can then help you become more physically active.
Integrating physical movement into your day can be beneficial in a number of ways and it doesn’t have to take the form of vigorous exercise. Joyful movement can be the ultimate stress reliever, so making time for physical activities you already enjoy is the best place to start. If you’re in need of other ideas, walking and yoga are both highly effective ways to calm the nervous system and reduce stress. A wealth of research indicates that walking and yoga both reduce stress and can improve mental health as well.
Breathe the fresh air
Spending time in nature is also an effective reset for the nervous system. A recent study by researchers at Cornell University found that college students who spent between 10 and 50 minutes in a natural setting showed improvements in physiological measures of stress as well as their own perception of psychological well-being. This was true for students who walked as well as for those who simply sat outside, making it an effective approach whether your nervous system is hyperaroused or shut down.
Focusing on calming physical sense experiences can communicate safety to the body, particularly when these experiences involve warmth, touch and smell. Focusing on sensory experience also has the benefit of bringing your awareness back to the present moment, and out of worried thoughts about the future.
Using warmth to calm the body can involve wrapping yourself in a cozy blanket, using a heating pad or microwaveable heat pack, or sitting outside in the sunshine on warm days. Hot tea or cocoa can be soothing, although if you’re feeling stressed, you might consider reducing or avoiding coffee, which causes the body to release cortisol, a stress hormone.
Hug someone (safely) or yourself
Humans are social creatures. We respond strongly to caring and safe forms of touch, which release endorphins in the body and promote feelings of safety, security and belonging. With current social distancing guidelines, many people are experiencing touch deprivation, which heightens feelings of loneliness and isolation and amplifies stress. Research shows that hugging reduces anxiety and stress. The benefits of hugging aren’t limited to hugging other people, but can come from hugging dogs as well. When hugging another being isn’t available, wrapping your arms around your torso and giving yourself a firm squeeze can also be calming. Researchers call this pressure stimulation. Pressure stimulation can also be achieved through the use of a weighted blanket. Originally used to reduce hyperarousal in individuals on the autism spectrum, weighted blankets are now used by people with anxiety and sleep disturbances, too.
When it comes to using smell to soothe the nervous system, my first recommendation is to consider what smells you already have calming associations with. The remarkably strong connection between memory and smell allows certain scents to evoke positive emotional states from the past, creating an immediate sense of well-being in the body. Aromatherapy with essential oils is another way to use your sense of smell to promote feelings of calm and relaxation. Many medical settings, including hospital ICUs and surgical units, as well as dental offices, are integrating the use of essential oils to reduce patients’ stress during medical procedures.
Learning how to calm your nervous system will help you become more resilient in coping with the multitude of stresses we are currently faced with. While we’re all experiencing stress, the strategies for reducing stress are unique to each individual. This requires experimenting with strategies to discover which ones work for your individual body and mind, while keeping yourself and others safe from potential COVID-19 exposure. If you feel overwhelmed by stress, be sure to speak with a mental health professional.
In my work with clients, I help people create a stress relief toolbox, a collection of individualized strategies to alleviate stress and enhance emotional well-being. You can use the ideas I’ve shared here to begin creating your own stress relief toolbox. You can also find a more extensive list of suggestions at angelaamias.com/toolbox.
Until next time, be well.
Angela Amias is a psychotherapist in private practice in Iowa City. Her work integrates mindfulness and the creative arts as tools to help individuals live with purpose and meaning. Angela is also a mixed media artist and co-creator of the Faces of the Divine Feminine Oracle. You can learn more about her at angelaamias.com.
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