This morning I went to Trader Joe’s to get my weekly groceries. It was a mad house of people quietly, frantically filling their carts, emptying shelves with very intense fearful, scarcity energy. I could feel the fear and the panic in the store throughout my body and tears were welling up in my eyes. I had a very familiar thought “you can’t cry here” and did my automatic response and pushed back my tears, (exactly what I teach my clients not to do). None the less that is the pattern. At the same time, I was having trouble concentrating because my nervous became hyper-aroused.
I was experiencing anxiety, fear and panic, and when the nervous system is highly charged it’s hard to think and my ‘thinking brain’ went offline for a bit. Even thought I have enough education on anxiety, fear and panic to know that this reaction is normal when in a room full of panic, and that the nervous systems will begin to resonate with other nervous systems, and it will feel hard to calm I still feel it. But knowing is half the battle. Right now, due to the Coronavirus pandemic many people are feeling a fight, flight, or freeze response and this is creating a collective anxiety and panic.
I realize that some of these tools may seem trivial at time like this, but they work!! And the more we practice them the better we get at them. But there are times, like now when we may not be able to “eliminate” anxiety, but we can manage it and give our nervous system moments of calm. So remember , the goal is managing not eliminating, trying to eliminate anxiety will make anxiety worse!!! The way to manage it is to first understand what your nervous system is doing, then apply some practical tools and strategies to support your nervous system to calm down.
Anxiety and the nervous system
One way our nervous system responds to extreme stress is to get active, and this activation lives in the body. It may feel like a buzzing in the body, or a buzzing of energy in the chest, you might feel a tightness in your chest or a lump in your throat with jittery sensations. Along with this may be racing thoughts, an inability to sleep and general discomfort. You may experience different behaviors in yourself, when I was in Trader Joes it was hard for me to think about what needed, I froze up a little bit. Or you may speed up and over buy- I did that too.
Breath and ground
When I left Trader Joe’s my nervous system was very activated, I was shaky, I felt disoriented, my breathing was shallow and my chest tight. Disorientation is another way the body manages stress; you may feel dizzy or have foggy head. To ground myself I called a few people- no one was around so I sat in my car and did some deep breathing and focused my attention on my feet until I felt more present. When feeling disoriented its helpful to breathe deeply, get air into your lungs and focus your attention out of your brain and into your body- you can do this by focusing on your feet and taking big deep belly breaths. This will help calm your nervous system.
I later talked with a few other people throughout the day who said they were experiencing a similar thing when out shopping this validation and connecting was also calming for me. Talking to other is helpful. You are not alone in feeling this way. Often validation helps calm the nervous system as well.
In the store, everyone was silently containing fear and panic. I finally broke the silence with the checker and said, “it’s weird in here”. she said, “oh yeah I feel it, its surreal and feels like I am in a sci-fi movie”, she also said, “I can see the fear and panic in people’s eyes”. And as we talked about it we both calmed down started smiling at each other and then wished each other the customary good day.
Managing Our Emotional Health
Our emotional health directly impacts our physical health. Our emotional tools are more important now than ever. Take precaution, prepare, stay informed but take time to slow down, calm your nervous system and think through things.
Most importantly stay connected with yourself. What happened to me in TJ is that my nervous system began resonating with everyone’s fear in the store, I have my own fear but it escalated by the collective energy. I became hyper aroused; my brain went offline-this is a stress/ trauma response and I felt panicked. I had to talk myself down, breath, remind myself that I am Okay in this moment and continue to feel my feet. Then I connected with the checker, reached to call a friend and yes, I noticed I wasn’t breathing- so I began to breath and feel my feet. These are very important things to do even if they seem trivial- a panic attack escalates because we stop breathing.
Things to do to keep the nervous system calm
- Limit your social media and news intake. Only read or watch the news once a day- stay informed but do not leave the news playing all day
- Remember to eat.
- Get outside, go on a walk outside even if it’s raining. Be in nature!
- Only watch things that are uplifting, comedy, and lite hearted movies, do not watch things that will activate the nervous system
- Pay attention to your inner dialogue- focus on thoughts that sooth you “Even though things are unknown its possible things are going to be ok”
- Do something you enjoy at home- art project, a funny movie, a comedy show
It’s okay to cry
I want to end by telling you that on this Trader Joe’s day I finally had a big cry, a few times that day. The tears kept welling up and I finally allowed it, even though at first, I was resisting the tears but once I let the tears through my anxiety lowered. Most often anxiety is masking our intense sadness and grief. As I cried, I realized, this pandemic is not only scary it is also incredibly sad. It is totally appropriate to feel sad right now, because it is sad, sadness and grief are appropriate to feel right now. And giving yourself permission to feel your sadness will help with the anxiety. Tears are cleansing if you have them. There is nothing wrong with you if you feel sad. As I cried the anxiety lifted, my mind cleared, I could think and began to feel possibilities and hope again.