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SURVIVAL MODE:

Getting Unstuck and Finding Calm

by Maureen Pollard

Emotional Health Editor

Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.  Visit her online at: maureenpollardmsw.com

In a crisis, our mind and body have an automatic response. Our brain detects danger and sends a warning signal throughout our nervous system. Chemicals tell our muscles to respond and we tend to freeze, flee or fight. This happens very quickly at the first sign of a threat, and it’s often a pretty effective survival response. Once the danger’s passed, our nervous system can settle back down as we feel safe again.

One challenge with this protective function happens when we are in an on-going crisis. Living in a pandemic is an on-going crisis. We often hear bad news about the numbers of people with the virus, the impact it’s having on our healthcare system and how it’s affecting people in our lives. Things are changing regularly with plans for school, work, shopping and gatherings, and it feels like there’s just no end. When this happens, we can get stuck in survival mode. Then our internal alarm system sounds endlessly, even though there isn’t much we can do to flee or fight the danger beyond washing our hands, wearing our masks and limiting our contact with others. 

This can cause a lot of anxiety as we worry about our friends, our families and ourselves. It can also leave us feeling isolated and depressed, concerned that the situation may never improve.

"One challenge with this protective function happens when we are in an on-going crisis. Living in a pandemic is an on-going crisis."
 

Breathe with intention: There are plenty of breathing exercises out there that can help calm your frayed nerves. A good, simple one is known as belly breathing. Place one hand over your belly button and the other over your heart. Breathe in deeply until you feel your belly rise under your hand. Breathe out slowly – try to exhale twice as long as your inhale.

Sip warm, caffeine free liquid: Choose your favourite herbal tea, or broth, served in a mug. Hold it in both hands and feel the warmth. Inhale the scent and then sip the liquid and feel the warmth pass into your body. 

Move your body: Walk, run, dance or stretch. When you move your muscles, you discharge the tension they’re holding as they prepare to fight or flee from danger. Give them something to do to release that tension and you’ll feel less jittery.

Think positive thoughts: Train yourself to notice the positive things in your day and in your life. Did something go well today? Do you have clothes to wear, food in your belly and a roof over your head? Was someone kind to you, or did you have a chance to be kind to someone else? Even on difficult days, we can turn our mind to something good in our life and it can help us hold hope that things will improve. 

Be gentle with yourself: Living through a pandemic is a difficult time. Nothing is working the way we were used to, and things keep changing. It can be hard to keep up, and it can be easy to worry about what’s going to happen in the future. Remind yourself that you are doing the best that you can in a difficult situation. That is all anyone can do. It’s okay to feel pain and stress, and then to try some of the actions listed here to help calm you. Be gentle with yourself and know that in time, things will shift.