The past few years have been stressful for most of us, to say the least! Uncertainty, rising costs, health concerns, disconcerting news reports. For all of us, the World has become less secure. For some, who were perhaps more apprehensive before the pandemic, this has tipped them into acute anxiety. This month I would like to share some tips for creating safety in the body.
When we become anxious, often our thoughts scatter and run at high speed. Our nervous system is on high alert and senses danger where often there isn’t any. Left unchecked this can spiral into panic attacks and a nervous system stuck in maximum fight or flight. Trying a top down approach, trying to rationalise your way out of this, isn’t typically the best strategy. Instead, why not try to use some physical strategies to down-regulate the nervous system, using the body as a way to talk to the mind. Create safety in the body and communicate that upwards.
Very often people who are fearful and anxious lose touch with their body. In TRE, one of the signs we look for, to keep people safe & present, is their awareness of their feet. The size, shape and sensations in the feet. Now there are about 200,000 sensory nerves running into the feet so they’re a good place to start a body-based approach. Either massage your feet or stand, knees soft, and feel every inch of your feet on the floor. Stamp your feet a little if that helps. You are of course, grounding yourself, quite literally. Take awareness to the body, away from your thoughts, and send messages from the feet to the mind about your environment.
In a similar way, touching your body in a reassuring way to send safety messages to your nervous system. If you have someone close by whom you trust, a hug works wonders. Sitting back to back with someone you trust is also wonderful therapy if you are extremely activated, as is pushing palms. If you don’t have the help of another person, then hug yourself, or lightly stroke your skin until you connect to the body, and lessen the hold of your runaway thoughts.
If you can engage the diaphragm as you breathe, you are activating the vagus nerve and beginning to change the state of your nervous system. Rest your hands on your lower ribs, and as you inhale, feel the lower ribs move out and to the side. As you exhale let them move back. Don’t worry if the breath jumps or if you are scattered & can’t focus to start. The more breaths like this you can manage, the more the vagus nerve will respond & activate the Parasympathetic branch of your nervous system.
When we’re anxious or fearful, our pupils dilate and our eyes move quickly, scanning the environment for threats. Stanley Rosenberg in his book The Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve, gives the following exercise to stimulate the vagus nerve:
- Lie on your back on the ground.
- Interlace your fingers and bring them behind your head, right at the base of the skull
- Look with your eyes to the right until you sigh, swallow, or yawn, and then repeat on the other side.
- You may blink during the exercise.
Engage your senses. Name out loud 5 things you can see, 5 things you can hear, 5 things you can feel, 5 things you can smell and taste. Connect with what’s happening around you, bringing yourself present and engaged.
Seek social engagement as soon as you can. Even though your instinct may be to avoid other people, talking it through or even just being around other people will help your sense of safety enormously.