COVID-19 has profoundly impacted our lives, causing feelings of confusion, stress and fear. Now more than ever, it is important for us to take care of our mental health.
We can start by understanding how our nervous systems respond to the threat we may perceive during the current pandemic, so we can adopt strategies to soothe our nervous systems. In a recent workshop with Kelin Hall, LCSW, we learned about those natural, instinctual responses, and how we can overcome our feelings of fear and anxiety.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
When animals are trapped in an enclosed space, they often respond in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. First, they may go into flight mode, pacing back and forth, trying to find a way out. Then, they start thrashing, fighting at the barriers that are keeping them captive. Once they realize there’s no way out, they freeze up, flop over and play dead.
Similarly, under threat, humans are likely to exhibit these instinctual nervous system responses. As we’re sheltering in place, our bodies may want to go into flight mode: pacing back and forth in our kitchen, trying to lose ourselves in media or productivity, or ironically itching for a run outside when we’ve never exercised much before.
Some of us may want to fight this situation. We may observe people fighting over toilet paper, someone close to you acting more irritable than usual, even people taking to the streets to protest shelter-in-place orders.
And yet many of us freeze up when confronted with the new normal: feeling shut down and generally unmotivated. Many people are finding it harder to get out of bed everyday.
Though these nervous system responses are natural, they evolved to protect us in a time when our biggest threats were actual predators. When the threat is a virus, these states are counterproductive because they draw energy away from our immune systems and make it hard for us to focus on making healthy choices. Thus, it is important for us to shift out of these states.
Fortunately, as humans, we have the cognitive and adaptive capacities to overcome these situations that may make us feel otherwise vulnerable.
Find Self-Care Strategies that Work for You
As we come under stress, self-care can feel like one more chore that we don’t have the time for. However, it is in exactly those moments that self-care becomes crucial to restore normal function to our minds and bodies. Below are some quick and easy ways in which we can practice self-care that are healthy responses to “fight, flight or freeze” states.
1. REMEMBER TO BREATHE
No matter what elevated state we’re in, breathing is one of the most effective ways to come back into our bodies, into the present moment. By slowing and deepening your breathing, you are sending the message to your nervous system and your brain that it is safe to relax.
Follow this audio clip for a simple 3-minute breathing exercise that you can practice on your own.
Whether you’re going through fight or flight mode, exercise can help discharge the nervous or negative energy that you’re experiencing. And it doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be just a minute of jumping jacks or push-ups, or even dancing to your favorite song for a few minutes. We are simply allowing our bodies to complete the stress-response cycle.
Feel free to join us at our next Monday night yoga session, which is a relaxing but also effective way to move our body while we’re staying home.
3. STAY CONNECTED
If you’re feeling exhausted, often that is caused by feeling unsafe and powerless. Reminding yourself that you are safe and you are loved is thus important. It’s ok to reach out for help, or to ask your friends and family to check in with you (and vice versa). When we stay connected and share our common experiences, it become easier to get out of the shutdown, frozen state. Remember that you are not alone in this. Also remember that the depth and quality of connection matters. Prioritize connecting with people with whom you feel seen and cared for, and make sure to call or video chat, not just text.
You can join us at our biweekly Happy Hour to connect with new friends and community-minded individuals.
4. UNDERSTAND YOUR BODY’S LANGUAGE
You’re only able to improve or move through hard feelings if you are aware of your mind and body. Check in with yourself frequently. Ask yourself: How do I feel? What do I need? Try out a potential solution, and notice how it worked for you. If you feel more exhausted after veg’ing out for two hours, perhaps try a brief exercise next time. Our minds may think we need one thing, but our bodies might tell another story.
The list below provides a self-care checklist in various aspects of our daily lives. Take inventory of what you’re currently doing, and think about prioritizing just one practice that might work better for you.
Be Kind to Yourself and Others
Sometimes, despite our best intentions and efforts, we still feel overwhelmed, particularly since this pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for all of us, all over the world. If you set a priority for your self-care plan, but run into structural difficulties or obstacles, it is ok to acknowledge and accept that reality. Be kind to yourself. This is a hard time.
At the end of the day, we are not animals in captivity. We are making an active choice to socially distance in order to keep our community safe. Reminding ourselves of this choice can be helpful in restoring our sense of agency, and using our awareness to take care of our minds and bodies can help move us through.
The article was adapted from Kelin Hall’s workshop on April 13, 2020: Personalize Your Self-Care Plan. For a complete recording, please contact the Chicago Minds team. Watch the short video below, and feel free to check out additional resources that Kelin has put up on her website.