What a ride we are having……

Have you noticed a racing heartbeat or tightness in your chest when you watch a news story or scroll through your Facebook feed? This is your Central Nervous System (CNS) communicating with you. In fact, it is your sympathetic nervous system. When we sense a threat (any threat), it lights up our Flight, Fight and Freeze parts. Then we may be at risk of behaving in ways that we don’t particularly like.

However your CNS has 2 parts to it. You also have a parasympathetic nervous system and it plays a role in calming your body.

For example, when a gazelle is being chased by a cheetah and it successfully outruns the cheetah, (cheetahs can only run as fast as they do for 30 seconds, because their brains overheat) the end of the chase signals to the gazelle’s brain that the threat is gone, so the stress responds ends. The threat has been resolved; it returns to a state of peace (homeostasis).


But what happens when a stressor/threat doesn’t have a clear ending — like, what we are going through in this experience of having a virus chasing us, and we don’t know how long will last? You risk suffering some consequences and that list could be long — unless you intervene, with the help of your nervous system.

You may remember the window of tolerance below.



When we go into hyperarousal we have too much emotion. This creates a stress response and we may behave in ways we don’t mean to, we are in survival mode. You may find that you are losing your patience with the kids. Feeling more irritated than usual with your partner. Maybe you want to drink more than you usually do or you just don’t know what to do. All of this is normal and expected in the current climate of our lives and when we are out of our window.

When we go into a hypoarousal we shut down and this can be problematic to how our system is trying to support us. We might feel lethargic and heavy. We might have thoughts like “I don’t care”. You may also feel “nothing”.

Psychiatrist Stephen Porges hypothesizes that the parasympathetic nervous system has two parts that cause two different responses: the dorsal vagal nerve network and the ventral vagal nerve network.

When you can’t resolve a threat through fight-or-flight response or establish a social connection to help calm you, your body sometimes decides it’s better to physically and mentally “check out.”

This process is called many things in our language, depression, fiend death, dissociation, some will even call it de-personalization. It’s the work of the dorsal vagal nerve network. When you’re shut down, you’ll feel powerless and hopeless, heavy and unmotivated to do anything — that’s one reason it’s so easy to glue yourself to the couch and go numb..

The ventral vagal nerve network, on the other hand, gets activated when you’re connecting with another person (or with yourself, by responding to your body’s signs of stress), which triggers calmness. This is the part of your nervous system you want to stimulate when you’re stressed.

Also known as the social engagement system, the ventral vagal network runs upward from the diaphragm area to the brain stem, crossing over nerves in the lungs, neck, throat, and eyes. Actions involving these parts of the body — including deep breaths, gargling, humming, or even social cues like smiling or making eye contact with someone — send messages to the brain that it’s okay to relax.

Luckily this system can also be activated by engaging the imagination. Often in sessions I have people close their eyes and imagine parts of themselves that need support. Then I ask them to begin to have a conversation, I assist them to talk to themselves as if they are a caring friend, partner, parent or mentor. This is the process of talking with your wisdom. This activity will also help to engage the social engagement system and help to calm your system.

As a kid you may have heard that if you talked to yourself, you were crazy…….well I have to say, I think that philosophy is just not true. Talking to ourselves in caring a compassionate ways is very supportive to our CNS.

Calming yourself allows you to think clearly and process your difficult circumstances — which will further resolve stress and help you get back into homeostasis.

Since all of this “stay home” experience, I have been doing our sessions on line, so many of you have been describing your experiences in more detail and many of you are sharing your strategies on how you are getting through.

Many of you have said you feel more tuned in. Your paying attention to how your body feels

One of you talked about being so upset with the kids that it felt like you were going to “snap”. Then you said to yourself “STOP”… You described feeling your feet on the floor, you described the vibrating in your chest, you said you could feel your heart pounding, and you just allowed all of these sensations to be with you. You then described staying “tuned in” and all of a sudden your sensations started to settle. You talked about feeling so proud of yourself that you stopped yourself from yelling at the kids (because they were just doing what they always do). This moment of awareness of your body was the key, it slowed you down.

If you’re not aware of how your body feels when you’re stressed, it’s hard to know when you need to give your nervous system some attention. All of those sensations are just asking you to “attend” to them.

When you “check in and feel” it is the first step toward getting yourself back into your window of tolerance. And engaging the ventral vagal system.

“The more we recognize our bodies’ capabilities and limitations, the more we can take care of them,”

One of you talked about taking control of mind and paying attention to what your thoughts are doing

This was such an interesting conversation, you talked about creating a process where you allowed your mind to think into the future, however only on Fridays. You called it “Future Fridays”!

I liked this concept so much that I tried it out and had so much fun with it. I began to allow my mind to think of all of the scary things that could happen as a result of the virus. I thought about losing the office, losing everything, my family getting sick………Well you get the picture. Then I allowed my mind to go to all the great things that could come of this, like a better connection with some of my colleagues or a reduction in the utilities bill I have to pay at the office.

The great thing about this is that I didn’t let my thoughts create any sensations in my body because I identified everything I thought as a thought. As I sat and allowed my mind to wander, I placed the words “I’m thinking” in front of every thought I had and that helped my body.

When we identify a thought as a thought our body seems to stay settled because it somehow knows that noting you are thinking is actually happening. It is a great way to train yourself not to react to your fears. It also helps your ventral vagal system to keep you in homeostasis.

So many people have told me that they have connected with old friends through video

Social connection, whether with other people or through “compassionate attention” to yourself, is one of the most important ways to activate the ventral vagal network. Some of us might think that connection can not happen unless we are in front of each other (I used to think this myself). All of this video connection has taught me I was wrong. I have been connecting with so many people through video. It is so helpful.

If there’s no one to socialize with, or if blurry, online interactions just aren’t cutting it, you can visualize someone you trust — even a pet — and imagine how you feel about this person and the connection you have. Your imagination is very powerful tool. Just think about how it freaks you out and your just sitting on the couch 🙂

Thinking about positive feelings can create a safety in us and bring us back into the window of tolerance.

As many of you know, I work with people to help them harness their anxiety

What has been a fascinating thing during all this is that so many of you have reported that your anxiety has reduced substantially.

I don’t have a scientific explanation for this other than I hypothesize that staying home has created a safety within you.

I also think that not interacting with as many people has helped you to stop creating stories about how others are interacting with you. You may not be second guessing yourself and worrying about how to interact with the world.

The story you tell yourself about your stressors can dictate how your body responds.

“How you interpret your situation and its danger lays out the potential for how chronic your stress will be”. It is important to minimize your perception of the threat by shifting how you respond mentally.

For instance, rather than thinking about social distancing as being stuck in your house indefinitely, think about being home as a way to contribute to public health, and an opportunity to slow down.

Steering your thoughts in a more hopeful direction could cause the brain to send messages through the vagus nerve, triggering calm in all the organs and systems along the way. I have found myself thinking “Staying in is good, I like this”!

AND…….I have also heard

“I don’t know how long I can stand this”,  “My anxiety is swallowing me”, “My routine is off, I am getting depressed”, “This is bullshit and we are being controlled”, “I am drinking more than I want to be”.

Coping and getting through
It doesn’t matter how you are getting through. There is no “right” way or “wrong” way to get through this. We have been talking about how self-compassion and observation of your judgments are keys to supporting yourself and others. When we can explore our “shoulds” (I shouldn’t be depressed) we can begin to support the belief vs trying to push ourselves out of a feeling. Based on the experience we’re having all of our defensive responses will be present. See if you can thank yourself for being so creative and adaptive to whatever life throws your way.

It won’t be long now……

I am busy preparing for the next wave of restrictions being lifted. I am hoping we can open our doors soon. I am working out all the details and will communicate with you when we are clear.

I miss everyone and I know that how we interact will be different. I have so much curiosity about how we will create this new experience.


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