“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life – and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” – Georgia O’Keeffe, American Modernist artist
At our most elemental level humans are simply living organisms, and like every species we must follow three fundamental rules of survival; we must avoid getting killed, we must eat to survive, and we must reproduce. The Three Fs: Fear. Food. Fornicate. These basic survival instincts (to flee or fight something that might kill us, to eat everything we can and to procreate) have been hardwired into us since we were cavewomen and cavemen.
Fear is our body/brain safety mechanism, in the right context fear is our friend. As a cavewoman, if you left your cave and suddenly saw a sabretooth tiger, your adrenaline kicked in and gave you much-needed energy to fight it or run away, (because you weren’t smelling the roses!).
So, for the survival of the species, we have been hardwired so that if any of the three basic human needs of:
- Love and Connection
- Personal Dignity
are threatened, a ‘fight or flight’ survival response will be triggered. Fear keeps us alive.
The sympathetic nervous system controls how we react to danger or threat. When the brain triggers the ‘fight or flight’ response, adrenaline gets released into the body, muscles contract, the heart rate increases, pupils dilate, we start sweating and non-critical functions shut down, allowing us to put energy into core functions like running away.
But it’s 2020, we don’t live in caves, where being connected to each other is vital to our survival, and there are no sabretooth tigers, yet we are still hardwired with the same fight or flight responses, which are beneficial in certain circumstances but can cause irrational reactions at other times.
For example, you need to write an important report, but the perfectionist in you is afraid of failure (your sense of personal dignity is threatened) and you keep putting it off and finding other things to do. This response is you freezing. Procrastination if the most prevalent form of freeze response. Your brain is stopping you from doing something that it considers a threat to your personal dignity, it saves you from yourself by distracting you to do anything instead of the report.
Your daughter comes home from school and tells you she is being excluded, the cool girls won’t ‘let her in’. Her sense of love and connection and personal dignity are being threatened, as are yours. What do you do? Your daughter has probably already tried numerous responses, you might decide to meet the teachers or the other parent (fawn), you might get angry and demand action (fight), or you might end up leaving that school because it doesn’t get resolved (flee).
What happens when the danger is real but can’t be seen, we can’t run away from it and it doesn’t go away; like Covid-19? We saw the responses of people, fear sent people out shopping, queuing, hoarding and staying away from each other. We also saw a tidal wave of the FIGHT response to the threat to human dignity on the killing of George Floyd. These are strong responses that we feel, that can take us over.
Our sympathetic nervous system keeps us alive with its early warning system, being stickier to negative thoughts, always looking for danger, etc. But if we stay in this heightened state of anxiety for too long it can have long term health consequences. The Mayo Clinic research on the the long-term activation of the stress-response system and the overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones that follows can disrupt almost all your body’s processes.
So how can we reduce our physical response to fear? The key to finding calm lies in our ability to activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This is the system that creates the ‘rest and digest’ state of calm. Research on the vagus nerve – the main network in the parasympathetic nervous system – suggests that if we can’t find a way to fight or run away from danger (the school bully / Covid-19), and we can’t find a way to connect to others (friends outside school / singing from balconies) we might dissociate completely, so we must address it.
Connection to another person and even connecting deeply to yourself by doing a grounding or centering activity will activate the ventral vagal nerve and bring calm to the body and mind.
The ventral vagal system is a set of nerves that runs up from your diaphragm across your lungs, neck, throat, and eyes to your brain stem. Therefore, activities that involve these parts of your body send messages to your brain that you are safe.
It genuinely works to smile when you are feeling anxious, particularly if you smile at someone, making eye contact and smiling ‘with your eyes’! Taking long slow, deep breaths and breathing out for longer than you breath in is remarkably effective, as are singing and humming. All these actions tell your brain you are safe. And by calming yourself you then allow yourself to think more logically and address issues with a clear mind. You respond rather than react.
Our bodies respond faster than our minds so by listening to the signals our body gives us – heat rising up our chest, neck and face, breath quickening, fists clenching, arms crossing – we can manage our symptoms, pause and respond rather than react.
So far you have been focused on your thoughts, this week your homework is to get back in tune with your body – what is it telling you?
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