While many countries are returning to a more normal way of pre-Covid life, here in Australia we are experiencing continued lockdowns, mask wearing mandates, social limitations and other pandemic protocols - with no clear end in sight.
Being exposed to stressful, changeable and uncertain circumstances for extended periods with little or no control, can be considered a trauma.
Having no known end point to an unsafe situation, puts our nervous system in an impossible bind. Whilst it is designed to keep us in a vigilant state for our optimal safety during crises, it is not designed to stay vigilant for weeks, months or years.
When the nervous system is required to maintain a fight/flight/freeze state of alarm for an unknown period, it is unable to down-regulate from that ‘sympathetic’ mode to the ‘parasympathetic’ mode, where we are able to rest, digest and repair. Instead it has to over extend itself to maintain its protracted state of alarm – called ‘hyperarousal’. This can result in chronic stress states, that can have a significant and long lasting impact on our mental and physical wellbeing.
Imagine for a moment you have decided to run a marathon - and as the starter gun fires you have internalised some sense of how long you are going to need to exert yourself to survive the experience. Perhaps you know you have an hour to be running; perhaps you have eight hours to run. Regardless of the distance, you know there is a finish line to the marathon and as such you can regulate not just your physical exertion and pain, but also any mental or emotional exertion and pain.
In this way our human body/minds are designed to endure extraordinary crisis, shock and other challenging experiences that push us to our limits. While it may take its toll on us in the moment, we mostly are able to bounce back and live to tell the tale.
In the case of Covid however, we are running a marathon with no known end.
What finish lines we may feel we are approaching, frequently change or disappear like a mirage, as the virus morphs and adapts in unpredictable ways. These ever changing conditions leave us scrambling to adjust, reorganising ourselves around disrupted every day lives and constantly required to compromise some of our most core needs.
It is natural as humans to look toward a future ‘finish line’ when it is safe, before we feel we can relax, rest or otherwise regulate. So long as our amygdala is sensing threat, we are hardwired to soldier on, galvanising all our energies and drawing on all our reserves till we are ‘home and hosed’.
But where a crisis is perpetual as with Covid, we cannot afford to wait till some unknown sunny day when the threat has entirely abated, but instead need to find ways to relax, rest and regulate ourselves now - despite the ongoing sense of threat.
This requires first regulating the fear that underpins our hyperarousal – that sense of panic, unease, anxiety or downright terror. It can help to simply acknowledge we are having those feelings – to sit quietly for a moment with the emotions we are feeling, noting also any physical sensations or thoughts that are present. Just acknowledging our feelings – not immersing ourselves in them but noting them, labelling them, witnessing them with compassionate curiosity - has the immediate impact of down-regulating their intensity.
Next, we can commit to doing something daily that promotes parasympathetic tone – the rest and repair state of the autonomic nervous system.
Parasympathetic inducing activities include:
• Resting: lie comfortably on a bed, on a carpeted floor, or on the couch with a blanket over you and allow your body to fully rest down and relax for at least ten minutes. Focus your mind on your bodily sensations and breath, if your mind wanders;
• Napping: take a brief sleep during the day, setting an alarm and allow yourself to drift off for 15 – 30 mins in a comfortable warm place;
• Bathing: soak in a hot bath for as long as feels comfortable, in peace and quiet with no distractions;
• Walking: take a slow, mindful, gentle walk in a known safe area. Bring your attention to the surroundings and acknowledge the sights, sounds and smells as you pass through the sensory environment;
• Mindful daily activities: bring a slow, focused, mindful approach to washing up, making a cup of tea, cooking dinner, having a shower, making the bed, cleaning the house or eating a meal. Mindfulness just requires being as present in the moment as possible, grounding yourself back in your experience over and over, despite the naturally wandering mind.
• Screen free time: bring boundaries to screen time and build in specific times of the day where you ensure there are no screens. Instead, fill that space with one of the above activities or get an early night.
Key to restoring regulation to the nervous system, is interrupting prolonged states of sympathetic hyperarousal with periods of the parasympathetic state. For it is only when our nervous system switches to this 'rest and repair' branch, that our body/mind has a chance to restore itself from the onslaught of stress the Covid pandemic has brought upon us. Only in that state can our nerves heal, our brain detoxify, our organs settle and our entire organism breathe a sigh of relief in a moment of ‘homeostasis’ - or neutral.
Over time, practicing daily down regulation of the nervous system, trains the nervous system to expect, enjoy, then even crave the balm of this soothing state. Taking a few minutes to attend to our regulation can happen at work, at home, in bed or at any time we feel safe enough to breathe out.
We may all be running a marathon in these Covid times, but we must only run at the pace we can sustain without cost to our physical and mental selves. We can no longer wait till we all reach the pandemic finish line to get a chance to relax, rest and repair. Instead we must learn to punctuate this journey with regular breaks - sojourns if you will - in the fragrant oasis of parasympathetic safety and calm.