It could be said that the Covid-19 pandemic has captured the world in a revolving door of on-again-off-again tension of opposites, toggling between panic and relief, hyper-arousal and hypo-arousal, anxiety and exhaustion, hope and despair.
Often, what might look like an entrance tends to morph into an exit and vice-versa; the ultimate toll has yet to be determined. However, there are clear and actionable strategies available to soothe our rattled souls, beginning with our forever-at-our-service Central Nervous System (CNS), which controls most of the functions of our mind and body.
Listening to your nervous system is key to improving your well-being. Supporting the nervous system can have a significant positive impact. It is helpful to remember the body, through the senses, and then the nervous system is the first point of contact for all incoming data about our environment and our experiences. It is only once information is taken in through sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch that our mind can set to the work of interpreting and contextualizing what is happening at the moment and how it has meaning to our lives. Thus, it makes good sense to help the body in order to help the mind.
These first three skills are body-related and the subsequent is a thinking and feeling skill. They are easily accessed, at no cost, and are self-directed.
Skill #1: Get early morning light exposure for 10-20 minutes outdoors, and reduce exposure to light at night
Did you know that our eyes are actually parts of our brain? According to Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford School of Medicine, our eyes are parts of the actual brain that live outside the cranial vault. They are directly connected to our Central Nervous System and, while they do the job of seeing, our visual system also has a significant impact on mood and levels of alertness. It is well documented that eyes exposed to unfiltered indirect sunlight for 10-20 minutes upon waking in the early part of the day, boost mood, reduce some depression, regulate the nervous system, triggers a healthy release of cortisol which aids wakefulness, and sets a timer for a later release of melatonin in the evening to optimize sleep.
Two side notes: many homes, offices, and car windows are tinted, so being outside is optimal, and remember indirect exposure to sunlight is the recommendation, never look directly at the sun. Additionally, reduce exposure to bright light after 10 pm, particularly on computers, tablets, and smartphone screens. A bonus is adding a short bout of exercise, such as a brief walk to your morning daylight exposure to increase the benefits. Scientifically, sunlight is extremely effective in increasing your healthy hormones.
Skill #2: Alternate between narrow and wide focus periodically during the day
When we are focused on a small field of vision (any screen, phone, computer, or reading a book) our nervous system is in an activated or anxious hyper-aroused state. It takes effort to hold attention, it is excitatory. Looking up, periodically, and taking in a wider or landscape view de-escalates the arousal, de-escalates anxiety, and brings the nervous system into a more relaxed state.
Give your eyes a little rest every once in a while when scrolling through your feed.
Skill #3: Utilize the “Physiological Sigh”
Jack Feldman Ph.D. Professor of Neurobiology at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Marc Krasnow Ph.D. Professor of Biochemistry at Stanford University School of Medicine, and Andrew Huberman encourage this well-researched breathing technique 1-3 times to quickly reduce stress and down-regulate the nervous system at the moment. It consists of a double inhale through the nose, (take in your normal amount of air, then top it up with a bit more) then exhale a long slow exhale through the mouth as a sigh. When the exhale is elongated relative to the inhale the nervous system is calmed down.
Breathe in deeper breaths than usual, and watch your stress levels drastically decrease.
Skill #4: The Four Asks
This is adapted from the work of Rick Hansen, Ph.D., Psychologist, and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. These are helpful in an event of arousal or overwhelmed state, which could be hyper-arousal (think gas pedal) or hypo-arousal (think brakes).
Firstly, ask yourself if you need to be in this stage. If the answer is yes, then, by all means, do whatever it is that needs to be done to address the problem. There could be a crisis or a loss where your reaction makes sense. You can come back to this after the event feels more manageable. The key here is to be able to discern the difference between a real threat and a felt threat. If the answer is no, move on to the next step.
As a second step, ask yourself if you’re doing okay at the moment. Decide if you are mostly alright, with the body and its systems mostly running as they should, a capacity to move, breathe, and heart rate within reasonable rates, acknowledging you are in a relatively safe place. Lean into a felt sense of being okay. Make sure you’re in sync with your thoughts and feelings.
You follow it up by asking yourself when you were last strong and effective in solving an issue at hand. Draw on your own Wikipedia or repertoire of experiences and references of being strong or having done hard things in the past. What did you do last time there was a challenge, and bring those into your awareness.
Finally, ask yourself what are some of the practices that keep you going. What brings you joy, satisfaction, peace of mind, or confidence? List them, remember them, and bring those into your awareness as allies. This will encourage a nice burst of dopamine which is a feel-good neurochemical that motivates you to repeat those practices.
This could be walking, weight lifting, yoga, breathing, lying down, praying, reaching out to a friend, listening to music, journaling, getting a snack, or anything that is part of a routine that supports your well-being.
These four steps taken together in sequence can be an effective strategy when things feel overwhelming.
When was the last time you felt you were strong enough?
About the author: Kim Richardson Lindley, MA, ICACD II, LMFT, LPCC, is dually licensed as a Marriage & Family Therapist and Professional Clinical Counselor, a Parnell Institute trained EMDR Therapist, and an Addiction Counselor with a private practice in West Los Angeles. You can learn more and get in touch with Kim by viewing her Frame profile here.