By: Lori Parker, M.A., Registered Psychologist, MBSR Instructor
It's been awhile since I have posted and so much has changed. Things that we used to do like hugging friends, shaking hands, gathering with large groups to share beautiful music, food or a show, dropping kids off to play or waiting in the doctor's office to support a friend, all changed, overnight. If we were lucky we got to transition to work from home. Some of us weren't and were launched into a scary world required to face an invisible pathogen or reduced hours or unemployment. We met with friends and family over video platforms, or through windows or the ends of driveways. We made signs to cheer on essential workers, washed and cleaned and sanitized everything in sight. So much change in such a short amount of time with no real answers about how long this would last and what life would look like next week or next month and we are still in it.
On top of this, many of us have suffered unimaginable losses of loved ones, community members, jobs, routines and innocence. We have been bearing witness to social unrest, painful inequalities and diviseness. Now we may have fears about the political climate and an impending election characterized by vitriol and hate. There are notes of loving kindnesses, strong communities, courage, resourcefulness, compassion and hope but at times they are hard to hear through all of the noise.
In stressful times like these, it's normal to feel unsettled, as though you aren't sure where your next step will land you. It's always been true that change is about the only thing that is guaranteed in life. In spite of this, we like to have at least some predictability and when we don't we can feel stressed, even anxious. While we might not know when things will approach normal, there is something that we can do right now. We can learn how to settle the neurological storm that happens inside of us when strong emotions arise.
There is a good chance that most of you are familiar with the fight, flight or freeze response. This is also known as the stress response. When we are in the presence of real threat like a bear in the woods; physical threat like the pain from a sprain or a broken bone; or cognitive threat like worry about what will happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday the response is triggered. The limbic system in the brain begins a series of neuro-chemical and hormonal messaging that is designed to help us run as fast as we can, fight as hard as we can or stay completely still. This response is very helpful in some situations and mostly unhelpful for us right now. It can make us feel tense, irritable, tearful, short of breath, nauseous, dizzy or sweaty. It can make us feel exhausted, unable to sleep or wanting to sleep too much. It can limit the function of the front part of our brain to focus on more signs of threat, sending us into a negative spiral. Over the long term, it can make it hard to make decisions, we might feel impulsive, helpless or hopeless. It can render us unable to see what is going well or what still has value in our lives.
The good news is that we have the capacity to learn calming strategies that can be used even when things are difficult. While it might not solve what is happening in the world around us, it can help us sand off the edges of the discomfort and enable us to meet the moment more effectively. I have added a grounding exercise called Finding the Soles of Your Feet to the Guided Meditations Page. It was developed based on the research out of the Department of Psychology at Brown University and the University of Massachusetts Centre for Mindfulness. It focuses on feeling the solid ground underneath your feet and then the body and then expanding your awareness to your immediate surroundings. This helps to bring us into the present moment. Regular practice of this exercise can help us interrupt the feedback loop of the stress response system. It can help to calm the physical symptoms of distress and open up our frontal lobes so that we can broaden our perspectives and build trust in our ability to find our ground. This may, in time, help us to see what still has value, what we can control and how we can bring more joy and contentment into our lives. Feel free to download and use it often, especially when you don't need it, so that it will be easier to use when you do. This practice has been one of the most used tools in my tool box these days and I am so grateful that it was passed on to me. I hope that you find it helpful.