This year has been, to say the least, a bit odd. We, as individuals, societies, and nations, found ourselves in a time of unprecedented change and insecurity. As Covid-19 spread around the globe, we found ourselves dealing with changes to our personal, professional, and social lives that we were quite honestly unprepared for.
According to WHO numbers (28th December 2020) this year globally 1,761,381 people have died of COVID and there have been 79,673,754 confirmed cases world-wide. We have witnessed quarantines, the normalisation of wearing masks, the introduction of social distancing and now, the introduction of vaccines. Each step along the way has brought with it debate and dissent and tragically death. But now as we are about to close the chapter on this most strange of years and begin to look forward to 2021, what things do we need to do to prepare ourselves for what may come?
Anxiety – the silent pandemic
Most of us have at some time during this year felt a strange sense of foreboding. The uncertainty of the future and the changes to our present have been disconcerting and destabilising. Many of us have faced extreme employment uncertainty and relationships have been strained, many to breaking. Keeping pace with these changes, has been a tsunami of mental health suffering; often classified as ‘Anxiety’. Whilst labels can be helpful, the reality is knowing that our pounding heart, ragged breathing, fearful thoughts, disturbed sleep, and lack of appetite might all be symptoms of anxiety, well it does not really help us do anything about them.
Firstly, anxiety is not really anything. It is the name given to a cluster of perfectly natural and helpful, physical responses that evolved a long time ago to get us out of danger.
Imagine you are walking along the road, it is a beautiful warm, sunny day and boom! A tiger jumps out from a tree. That is when your autonomic (think automatic) system kicks in. It sees the big. fierce tiger and your brain is a flood of chemicals which send super-fast messages to your muscles to scream ‘hey guys get ready we’ve either going to have to run, fight or pretend we’re dead’. Along the way it stops off in our lungs changing our breathing to panting, tells the stomach to stop digesting food and orders the bowels and bladder evacuate all unnecessary passengers.
There are 4 important things to bear in mind:
1. You have no choice in any of this. Basically, your thinking brain, the frontal cortex is completely taken offline – in a situation perceived as dangerous it operates far too slowly. This part of our brain has been designed to analyse, debate, plan and when quite frankly a 250-pound tiger is about to take you out, well there is not much planning needed in the dictate ‘SURVIVE’.
2. This state of physical emergency is designed to be very short-lived: either the tiger takes you out, or the tiger leaves and you live. Either way the automatic responses are time-limited and fade away quite quickly (whether in the tiger’s tummy or not is beyond the scope of this article).
3. Modern man for all his intelligence is pretty dumb when it comes to this survival response system as the mechanism has become over-generalized. That is, it does not turn off like it should. Instead, we walk around our relatively mundane lives, as though there were tigers constantly jumping out at us.
4. This means our body is constantly being flooded with stress hormones and nothing ever gets to truly rest and our thinking, planning, resourceful executive brain is pretty much off-line constantly, leaving us at the mercy of our ’emotional, memory’ brain. Not a good thing at all.
So now for the good news, this system is changeable and its within your control to do it. You have already done the first step but understanding that what you call anxiety is really a very natural and essential muscle priming system gone a bit wonky. I am going to walk you through its different levels so you can understand anxiety is not a disease, it’s just a survival system that has somehow got the idea that walking to the corner shop is a seriously high-risk endeavour.
Now before I deal with those already screaming in their minds ‘it is though! We could get infected and die!’ I’m going to deal first with the physical system which is after all where it’s all really happening.
Care for your body
As anyone with dyspepsia will tell you, it hurts, and it sucks. It is also a symptom of anxiety. High blood pressure? Yep anxiety. Breathing issues, skin issues, bowel issues? Uh huh. Now it may be that there is a genetic component, a lifestyle component and that by the time you decide you’d better find out if it really is cancer that you have and finally go to the Doctor, there is, for sure, likely to be some chronic, physical ailment now present.
But if you consider that your survival system has been banging away, week in, week out, year in, year out, never truly switching off. Well, it is not hard to imagine there is going to be damage. Imagine never turning off your car’s engine, eventually the timing belt is just going to go, if the engine does not throw a head cylinder gasket first.
So, what can you do? Well strangely enough there 2 rather simple practices that if you do nothing else but these, you are already on to a winner.
- Breathing nice and slow
Breathing is all about holding the carbon dioxide in for as long as possible. It is what we breathe out and what trees thrive on. So, you know in the films when they give the freaking out heroine a paper bag to breathe in? That is why. She is now breathing in carbon dioxide, not oxygen. This cons the autonomic system into calming down.
Think about it this way, the body is primed to ‘think’ that if you are breathing slow then you cannot be running from a tiger. The system registers this because the carbon dioxide levels have increased. So, we need to tap into this system off-switch without the need for a bag – although if you want to give it a go, try it, just not for too long.
And how we do it is quite simple. We simply use a breathing count. Breathing in for a count of 3 and breathing out for a count of 5. That is it. Not any more complicated than that. Keep that going for a minute or two and you will start to calm down.
Sure, you can go to Yoga, Tai Chi, Swimming, Meditation but basically this is the fundamental ‘calming you down’ part of all of them
- Learning to relax your body
Now the other system that needs to re-learn stuff is your muscles. Imagine that for years it has been ready to go. It has been on high tiger alert. In fact, often so high that you are not even aware that it is tense. Yep, your shoulders are somewhere around your ears and your back is so tight you could be used as a wall in Squash. But that’s normal right? No. No it is not. It is your survival system gone wrong.
Well, this involves you really getting to know your body. I do not mean in any freaky sort of way, but in being able to go inside yourself and scan throughout your body to look for tension and actively release it.
For those of my clients who have 0 idea what I am talking about I tell them “first of all clench everything up, really, really tight, hold it, hold it, keep holding it, hold it some more, now release’” The feeling when they release the tension, that is being relaxed. Try it, you might find it surprising to know that is how your body is always supposed to feel.
With practice, you can get really good at doing a quick mental scan of yourself whilst sitting or lying, just breathing out and relaxing that tension just a little bit more. Usual areas for storing tension the jaw (for teeth grinders), the shoulders (frozen neck sufferers and headaches), the back (sleep issues and lack of flexibility), and feet (balance issues – stretch those tootsies).
It is also why sport is so good; we are forced to move our body and stretch everything so unwittingly we are letting go of all that pent up tension.
NB: this is where Yoga and Tai Chi come into their own – they do breath work and stretching. But please remember none of this is a ‘do it for a fortnight and I am cured’ fix, it is a lifelong commitment to caring for yourself.
We have covered a lot. Before you start Part 2, go try the exercises for a couple for days, then when you come back, I will introduce you to why caring for your mental and social needs are so important to taking control of your overly responsive survival system.