4 Strategies For Maintaining Emotional Wellness When the World Feels Unsafe

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Navigating Our Collective Anxiety

The world is navigating some pretty difficult terrain collectively at the moment and it is becoming increasingly apparent to me how profoundly our emotional states can impact each other.

“We are social beings. Our survival depends on our understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of others. Mirror neurons allow us to understand other people’s mind, not only through conceptual reasoning but through imitation. Feeling, not thinking.”

– G.Rizzolatti

Our mirror neurons respond to overt behaviors, subtle shifts in body language, and shifts in emotional states of others in order to produce an empathetic response in ourselves. I think that we are also seeing this in the energy that is showing up in our news feeds.

Emotions are bubbling up world-wide at the moment and it is human nature to turn to one another for information about our own emotional experiences…Are others feeling this too? Is my emotional state founded? Where can I find a voice of reason? One characteristic of anxiety in particular is that it brings us outside of ourselves. Our senses responsible for taking in our surroundings become heightened. This vigilance in many ways is adaptive and designed to protect us. However, when does it become hypervigilance?

This past week, I have found myself with urges to avoid the overwhelming collective anxiety entirely, vascillating between the urge to stick my head in the sand and carry on with business as usual and the urge to completely withdraw from the world and shut down.

While these urges are strong and I will certainly succumb from time to time in the weeks ahead when the overwhelm rises, neither feels like an effective way to intentionally forge ahead.

I am committed to living my values of service and connection. I am committing to sit with the urges and make the choice to dip my toes in the reality. To dip my toes in the collective. The vigilance created by a collective anxiety does foster motivation to respond to our current challenges in an effective and socially responsible way. But when does effective vigilance become ineffective and individually draining hypervigilance? Here are some ideas for prioritizing your individual emotional wellness while we navigate global uncertainty.

1. Naming Our Emotions

When our mirror neurons are firing on all cylinders, it is hard to tease out what is actually ours, and what might be a “second-hand emotion”. Our boundaries become a bit fuzzy.

The body is the subconscious brain that stores our emotional wisdom. Unfortunately this wisdom often goes untapped in a society that too often views the sensations of the body as experiences to override, overcome or ignore. Our emotions are felt senses within. During a time when we are being driven to hypervigilance in our external world, it will serve us all well to find a practice of dipping toes back inside of ourselves from time to time and taking a temperature of our own internal states. Naming the emotion is a way of bringing what is happening in the subconscious brain (our body) into our consciousness. Check out the feelings wheel below to practice noticing the granularities of your emotional experiences. Getting specific about our emotional experiences can help us to tease out our needs as an individual.

Some specific strategies for coming back to ourselves and taking an internal temperature:

Body Scans. Coming to recognize emotional states may be a novel process for many. A useful place to start is scanning for the physical sensations in our body that may give us some clues about our emotional states and how we tend to hold this in our bodies…What sensations are you noticing? Where? Tension? Softness? Pulsing? Rumbling? Heart rate? Qualities of breath? Urges or impulses to move in certain ways? There are so many fabulous free body scans of differing lengths available online.

***If you are coming to this practice from a place of distrust or disconnection in or from your body, consider opting for some professional guidance and support with dipping your toe in and playing with strategies that don’t create overwhelm for you?***

Movement practices. A wrench may have been thrown in our typical movement routines. Leagues and classes cancelled, gyms and studios temporarily closing their doors. However, so many fitness & movement professionals have been rising to the occasion and taking the initiative to create offerings online so that you can find a practice that works for you in the comfort of you home. In the spirit of community, many have made workouts, flows, and even workshops & group practices available for FREE! Do a quick search and ask yourself how you may be able to shift gears to continue to prioritize your own wellness perhaps in a new way. Check-in with your body before and after your movement practice!

Tapping/rolling out your body boundaries. We can feel fuzzy boundaries in a very physical way. I use this strategy in between clients. It helps me to re-establish a sense of where I am in space as a separate but connected entity. It supports me with holding space for the difficult experiences of others and responding with empathy without taking on the entirety of the emotional experience into my own body. Do a quick scan of your body and then experiment with tapping (either with the palm of your hand or a bean bag) all along the borders of your body (from feet to face and head or the reverse). Check-in with your body again after this practice. How do you feel? You can also use a lint roller or brush, rubbing or rolling along the surfaces of your body, experimenting with different pressures and textures. How does this feel for you? As a highly sensitive and empathetic individual working in a helping profession, I find this practice incredibly grounding.

Using voice and sounds. I have had more and more clients tell me that using deep, low register sounds seems to guide them from the hamster wheel in their brain back down into their body. The gentle vibrations and the direction of pressure inward and downward can be a very grounding experience. Experiment with a few rounds of a gentle “ohm” or “vooo”, checking-in with yourself before and afterwards, noticing any shifts in your experience, your body, your arousal. Play with all the sounds!

2. Monitor Our “Doing”

Yes “Doing” is important, it is helpful for emotional wellness to understand and act on the things that are within our control during this time of uncertainty. Maybe it is establishing those socially responsible practices and habits that do help to slow the spread of COVID-19, maybe it’s planning, and problem-solving how we are going to shift our own routines in the coming weeks so that we can continue to move forward with our own goals and values. Vigilance helps us to respond effectively to what is within our control and the “doing” can help us to re-establish a sense of personal effectiveness when there is so much that remains outside the bubble of our control.

For many of us, sitting in the uncertainty of these times is a very uncomfortable place to be and we may begin to engage in an abundance of behaviors to try to eliminate inevitable uncertainty in desperation to re-establish a sense of control or homeostasis. In other words, we may start to use a lot of time and energy in futile attempts to control the things that are outside the bubble of our personal control. One way that this shows up is a hypervigilance around checking the media and searching for information about events around the globe.

I recently shared a fabulous post from @seed.and.sew with some guiding questions to reflect on whether our behaviours are helping us to be aware and mindful or if they are feeding into anxiety and a preoccupation with the things outside of our control:

-What will I do with this information?

-Do you feel like you need more information in order to self-regulate?

-Are you experiencing invasive thoughts about what you are reading when you are no longer looking up information about it?

If sitting with uncertainty is something that you struggle with, check out this resource from Anxiety Canada to learn more about strategies for building up our tolerance of uncertainty.

3. Dipping Our Toes Back Into Our Personal Values

We make choices moment to moment, day to day in our responses to our environment and our internal states. These choices can be subconscious or conscious. Very often they are subconscious and driven by habit or emotion or both. For example fear of deprivation and modelling from the world around us (i.e. have you run out ASAP in the past week to buy a shit ton of toilet paper? 😉)

What happens when we pause and evaluate, how have these responses been serving me? Did it bring me towards what is important and meaningful to me? Or did it move me further away? We have an opportunity to bring the choice into our consciousness and from time to time, choose to respond with intention?

During times of adversity when we are driven to look to the collective and swept up in the emotions of the collective, one thing that can keep us grounded in who we are is reflecting on our individual values. The term “values” often gets confused with “morals”. However, morals seem to have more of a social element and can be thought of as systems of beliefs that are learned to help individuals make decisions about “good” and “bad” as they move through life. It can be helpful to think of values, on the other hand, as more internally vs. socially driven. They are the qualities and characteristics that are meaningful and important to an individual and help us to prioritize and make choices about activities and behaviors in service of pursuing a life that is worth living to us. Values are like a compass that can help us to respond to difficult private experiences or difficult circumstances with intention, keeping our own view of a rich and meaningful life in mind.

In times of chaos that spans the globe, we can lose ourselves in the “shoulds”, “musts”, and great debates about how to effectively move forward as a collective. Don’t get me wrong, responding as a collective and having these critical discussions is important and valuable. However, so is dipping that toe back into ourselves and reminding ourselves of what it is that we value as an individual.

What do you want to stand for in the face of this? What characteristics do you want to embody? If those important to you in the different domains of your life (work, school, family, friends, team mates, partner) were going to make a speech about you, how would you want them to describe you?

The Bull’s Eye Exercise is a VALUES clarification exercise that comes from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. I often use it with my clients that are on a journey of re-establishing a sense of self while navigating chronic pain, illness, or disability. If you are feeling a bit at a loss currently, give this exercise a whirl! What did you discover about yourself and what matters to you? When our “doing goals” are thrown for a loop, getting in touch with our values can help us to pivot and respond with flexibility.

4. Building Community & Getting Creative

There are so many professionals that are being called to work overtime (health care, first responders, etc.) in order to help us all through this pandemic. YOU ARE SUPERHEROES! Thank you for your service. In the spirit of community building and the human drive to be effective, what can we do to serve and support you as you are stepping up to the plate to care for us? What offerings would help you make space for your own wellness as the pressure mounts? How can we support your efforts?

Conversely, many of us are taking a step away from our work and productive roles.

Is this an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate our work-life balance? Is this an opportunity to evaluate our self-care and leisure practices? Is this an opportunity to make more space for that quality time with our families that always seems depleted in the hustle and bustle of regular life?

If you run your own business and are feeling the pressure to temporarily close the doors or take a big step back, is there an opportunity to deliver your skills and offerings in a different way that will meet others where they are in this weird time? Can you move your services online? Have you had a project percolating in your brain that would help you to better serve your customers or clients but you haven’t had the time? Is now that time? Are you feeling called to use your skills to serve the broader community, health care providers, or first responders? Can you creatively bring something to the table that will help others wade these waters?

In order to respond effectively as a community we must harness the wisdom and beauty of our individual gifts. How are you balancing a sense of self & community as you wade these waters?

You don’t have to do it alone! We are expanding our telehealth service hours, acknowledging that there will be an increased need to connect virtually.