Over the past year I’ve followed a number of very subtle, thin-as-air, “whiffy,” seemingly over-the-top, yet very clear impulses. Some have come during trauma therapy sessions and some as part of listening to my body in my ongoing process of working with my chronic illness and gradual recovery.
The first impulse was to participate in a pre and perinatal workshop in California (which lead me to a wait list, being given an opening a day later – two nights before the workshop began – and scheduling travel and a place to stay all in a few hours that same night). This was my first trip other than to visit family in maybe 15 years. It validated that my body was improving, gave me another leg up in my health, and gave me more courage to keep trusting my body.
The second impulse was to get support to chip away at some layers through multigenerational trauma work. This was originally supposed to happen in New York but eventually called me to Spain. This took me WAY farther out of my comfort zone – and added another layer of improvement in my life.
The third impulse declared itself in early January, just a few short months ago. It was the desire to go on a quiet adventure in the form of a writing retreat. At the ocean.
I really, really wanted to go to Oregon. I’ve felt a pull for decades. I listened to this impulse even though I live in Colorado some 1500 miles away.
- Note: I made significant changes to this post April 13th, including to the title. I added more support for inviting safety as an important pathway to helping our nervous systems calm the fear that so many of us are craving right now. I wanted to make it more about support and resilience and less about fear as I’ve worked through some of my own fear since first writing the post.
Following An Impulse
That retreat is taking place right now and I am on the beautiful coast in an amazing little house overlooking a quiet estuary. The bonus? I have an even better view than I expected (you see the view in the picture above with the sunset and the one below, which is the view from my desk that I have pushed up right against the front window).
I have the best of so many possible worlds – views of water, a quiet place (much quieter than if I’d been in a house ON the ocean, which I discovered unexpectedly wears on me over time), and ocean waves in the distance. It’s stunning.
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I’m also alone in this sweet little place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Health in Our Impulses
As I explored this impulse to drive to Oregon a few months ago, my husband and I appreciated the fact that my health has improved to the point where I even WANTED to take a long car trip. I crossed the country more than a few times in the olden days before I got sick, more than twenty years ago. We were both thrilled that I had the “margin” to do something like this, now that I can eat what I want and have enough energy that I can drive for a few hours at a time.
I also noticed two things about this impulse – a desire to flee and a a sense of reaching for something I craved.
My flight impulse has happened before. To my delight, it has actually served me well, even though it caused great havoc in m y life and raised a lot of doubt in my mind at first.
The last major flight impulse I had was when I left my career as a physician. It included selling my house, taking a self-funded sabbatical using my personal savings, and STOPPING. For a year.
It eventually lead to a different way of living and being in the world. It started with the impulse to go back to school to become a body psychotherapist, risking what felt like everything including all of my retirement savings, and facing fears that I might become homeless.
My therapist at the time took me very seriously. He also stayed curious about the impulses I was following. He supported my process by asking me to be with this fear in a refreshing, unexpected way. He said, if you DID become homeless, “How would you play bag lady?” This wasn’t making fun of anyone who is homeless. Rather, he was asking me to imagine my worst fear for a moment. And when I did that, to my surprise (always a good sign when your system surprises you during a thought experiment like this, because it means you are really in the present and not making something up) it reminded me that, even if my biggest fear were to come true, I could be okay for that moment. Because in that moment, I would still be alive. The surprise had been that I hadn’t thought I could live if I ever became homeless.
If I were still alive – it meant that I’d have choices – to be with myself, to not abandon myself, to keep examining what it was that I wanted and that my body was guiding me towards. To keep doing my best with what I had, whatever that might be.
The thought experiment decreased my fear and helped me keep going for what I wanted.
Taking the risk to go back to school, go into debt, and keep trusting my dreams, in turn, has lead to everything I’ve since learned about trauma and my passion to understand how it relates to chronic illness. It has been feeding my soul for 20 years.
It was also scary in many other ways – scary to feel that desire to leave my career. Scary to leave the first house I had ever owned, less than a year after moving in. Scary to not know what I might do instead of the career I had envisioned since I’d been a child.
This desire to come to Oregon has had similar tendrils. A sense of wanting to get out of Colorado and it’s dry, almost perpetually sunny clime.
It has also seemed related to wanting time alone, away from people in general. A time to check back in after being sick for 20 years and house bound or limited in significant ways for most of that. A chance to get a sense of who I am now.
2. Mindfulness: Reducing Old Fear
One of the patterns I’ve come upon over the past year of working with my health, emotions and my chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), is a relative difficulty in connecting at a deep emotional level with others. This has been especially true in my most intimate relationships. I’ve been aware of this for many years now and I have been slowly coming into my body more fully, and into connection more fully as well.
But there has remained a sense of distance in my deepest friendships. A wall I have been unable to climb over. An inability to settle sufficiently in my own system and to connect emotionally and deeply.
But even though I don’t have this clear sense of real and easy, fully present emotional connection, the rest of me really likes being with these extra special people. What we understand from trauma that can help make sense of this is that, when you can’t feel something, it can be an indication that your system is numb or frozen because there are overwhelming feelings underneath. In other words, it’s not because you are truly distant, or don’t care, or are uninterested.
The place of disconnection and numbness is actually a shield that comes from an age old defense response in our systems – the state of freeze.
This shield stems from difficulty I have in feeling completely safe. It hasn’t been about any actual or true lack of safety in my closest relationships or even in the present moment. It has been about an underlying sense that my world – and humans – are not safe.
When we have this type of globalized fear response, it is often due to something old rather than something in the present.
In this time of the coronavirus there is clearly a reason to feel scared in the present because of this invisible little virus. This is a serious concern for everyone. Those of us who have a chronic illness or who are especially vulnerable in other ways are even more likely to feel this fear.
But there’s also a need to heal. To reduce the risk of trauma from such an intensely stressful event as the pandemic. To maximize our chances of being as healthy as possible. To find ways to do self care, to be able to sleep, reduce our symptoms, rest, digest and acknowledge what does feel safe.
That’s where being mindful of impulses and of the present moment comes into play. We vastly underestimate this seemingly little tool. Practicing mindfulness – the act of having at least some part of you observe the moment, without judgement, and with self compassion – actually helps to weaken pathways between fear centers and thoughts that trigger fear. They also help strengthen messages to our brains that old fear and triggers are no longer accurate and that, in this moment, we are okay.
Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation (learn more in my 10 tools blog post and explore it through mindfulness meditation practice with one of my faculty I trained with years ago, Kekuni Minton, who teaches a trauma therapy approach known as sensorimotor psychotherapy. Here’s Week 1 – Week 2 – and more to come on their facebook page. Kekuni is introducing the principles each week through a gentle, spacious mindfulness meditation.
3. Following What You Crave
Another way of inviting more safety has to do with what you crave. I had some doubts about my impulse to come to Oregon because it had such a strong component of fleeing – just as I had twenty years ago when I wanted so desperately to leave medicine. Yet the impulse also rang true because of another component: Something that my system craved.
Things we long for and crave offer ways of working through tangled, water-tightened gordian knots that don’t seem to want to budge. That aren’t going away even with huge insights about their origins, or understanding just how they like to express themselves. Cravings to heal and to keep doing trauma therapy, for example, have helped me keep working with symptoms such as disabling fatigue, anxiety, flare-ups, belly symptoms. They’ve helped with more subtle expressions of fight/flight, such as talking louder or faster, not wanting to stop or slow down, and being Super Productive.
What we want or crave is often a clue to what our own unique bodies and nervous systems might need in order to heal.
As many of you know, I’m a big believer in listening to our bodies and trusting our impulses.
So I made plans last January to come to Oregon in the middle of March because I craved water, mist, moisture, rain, and the ocean. I craved a large amount of space that was all mine and only mine, to do with as I pleased. I wanted Alone time and quiet time. I wanted to write although I didn’t really know what I’d actually feel like doing once I got here. So I brought my basic tools (computer, paper, journal, paints and even a canvas) and stayed open to what might arise.
4. Checking In
As my departure date approached on March 8th, the pandemic was just beginning to land in the US. I had a feeling it was going to be serious and I wondered whether it was really a good idea to go. But the impulse and the craving and the flight response were all still just as strong as they had been.
So I did a “check-in.”
I learned about check-ins over 20 years ago with my first therapist, Kevin. It involves creating a few minutes (or more) of space and time to ask your body a few questions and see how it responds. It’s an experiment in which you ask yourself a question and practice being as open and nonjudgemental and curious as you possibly can, so that you can hear the actual answer and not just what you hope to hear.
I sat down on the edge of my bed and did my thought experiment.
I settled my system a little first by feeling the bed and letting go of thoughts so that I wasn’t distracted or in some state of emotional distress or worry (being distressed when you check-in makes it harder to tell whether the answer you’re getting is due to your underlying fears or anger or other feelings, or whether it’s an actual answer to your question).
I asked each individual question separately:
- What happens in my body when I imagine cancelling my trip? I felt a slight heaviness.
- What happens in my body when I imagine staying home? I had the same mild increase in heaviness in my chest area.
- What happens in my body when I imagine going to Oregon as planned? This tine, the space in my chest opened up and felt lighter and slightly more spacious. There was also a subtle golden color to the light. And it felt good. Pleasurable. There was a little more energy in my system.
This was how I based my decision to come to Oregon despite what was happening in the world. So I came and took as much care as I could. I was very cautious on my drive, brought all my own food so I wouldn’t have to stop in any restaurants (except a Mexican restaurant my first night ’cause it was part of the joy of the adventure), stopped only for gas, and had wet soapy cloths in the car so I could wash my hands afterwards. I was able to drive long days, and to keep going because I could feel the desire to land in a safer spot, and got here a few days earlier than I’d expected.
5. Mobilizing Even if There’s Fear
I felt my fear as I drove across Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. And as I finally arrived in Oregon. I knew it was partly due to this counter-intuitive, potentially risky, possibly completely inappropriate choice I was making.
I also knew it was because I was mobilizing. I was moving. And I was moving towards something I wanted.
Mobilizing is typically thought of as an act solely supported by the sympathetic nervous system.
Sympathetic activity enables us to DO something. It maintains our blood pressure, stabilizes or increases our heart rate, distributes more oxygen to our muscles so we can stand up, walk, or run. It helps our pupils focus and blood sugars become available for fuel instead of being stored away in our cells. These are characteristics of the sympathetic nervous system in states of safety.
If we feel fear, our sympathetic nervous systems gear up a notch or ten and we gain the options to protect ourselves through fight or flight with even greater availability of fuel and oxygen, blood pressure and heart changes etc.
As a person with a chronic illness that is driven by a freeze response (ME/CFS), anything that represents sympathetic activity can actually trigger more shut-down.
This is because such symptoms are the result of a body that learned that movement, action, anger, fight and flight were not options that could increase my safety or help me escape. In chronic illness, our nervous system have learned, somewhere very early on, that the only way to survive is to shut down, be quiet, not express conflicting opinions, be good, be helpful, support others, please others, and not be too visible. For others, it’s been to fight, argue, stir up conflit or flee (fight and flight mechanisms).
After a few decades, these pathways get strong enough to lead to the very real symptoms of chronic illness and to skillfully maintain states of freeze-like hibernation, fight or flight, or some combination of these.This is because our nervous systems still interpret the world as though it is threatening in ways it was in my past.
Remember that it’s not psychological. It’s not actually a conscious choice. These are pathways that are run by our nervous systems as a way to maximize our chances of survival in circumstances that once felt overwhelming. Just as we don’t consciously manage our blood pressure or heart rate or blood sugar levels in fight and flight, we don’t manage them in freeze either (when they tend to get very low as a way to preserve us during shut-down).
As a result, any kind of mobilization can be a trigger for a flare-up for me and for many others whose symptoms are based on the freeze response. A flare-up is a worsening of any one of my symptoms that are driven by that state of freeze – such as fatigue. Flare-ups happen because my system has shut back down and gone back into freeze.
In other words, mobilizing can make my internal “Bear” that is poking it’s head out of the cave to see if spring has arrived and if it’s time to come out – retreat back to her den. Even if spring has actually arrived and it is actually safe and welcoming out there.
Taking action can therefore cause flare-ups of the freeze state in my physiology, which I experience as increased fatigue (even as it is no longer incapacitating the way they used to be) and this week, also more belly bloating and discomfort.
Moving towards what I want can also trigger characteristics of freeze in my behaviors – making me want to stop and not do anything, making me want to just crawl into bed and stay there for example.
At the emotional level, mobilizing by driving west for 5 days also triggered a sense of greater disconnection mixed in with my fear. This is mixture of sympathetic and freeze.
But it has also been satisfying and tender and spacious. In other words, my craving has been rewarded.
Note that, in an opposite way, slowing down, being home, feeling stuck can be triggering or stimulate more flares if your system is caught more in fight and flight.
Ultimately, experiencing a lot of fear as is happening in the pandemic stimulates flares because it stimulates all of our old survival responses. This is where making time and room to take in perceptions and feelings of safety make a difference.
6. What Calls to You
I made room for feelings of safety during my drive here by tapping into things that appealed to me. It’s a way that gives you padding so that you are not as easily overwhelmed and so that your thoughts don’t take over or run the show.
One way I did this was to cultivate gratitude as I drove through areas that made my heart fill with appreciation. Appreciation that arose spontaneously as I dipped into the fact that I could make this trip in the first place.
I also paid attention to the landscapes that drew my attention. I then followed more impulses. I pulled over and took a few long walks in the middle of nowhere in both Utah and Nevada, and then in the Redwoods and then on the beaches when I finally made it to the coast.
I collected a tiny bunch of bright green moss that is one of my favorite colors of all time, along with a small stone smoothed by the ocean and a little art form of twisted grass.
I gave myself lots and lots of silence and in between, I listened to Taylor Swift’s new album Lover and Mandy Harvey, one of my favorite acts from America’s Got Talent who got the golden buzzer for her song Try (about how she wanted to give up after she lost her hearing from a connective tissue disorder, but wanted to do more with her life than “just give up”).
When I recently got groceries for the first time in weeks, I paid attention to all the resources I could notice because my anxiety was quite high and I could feel the anxiety in the store as well.
I listened to the country western song playing while I looked for dates. The love song actually made me soften and feel teary – it was connecting me to my social nervous system so I didn’t get caught in freeze.
I paid close attention to the color of the fruit and how fresh it looked (something positive and pleasurable). I drove there and back using the more scenic of the two routes I could take, using the view of the ocean to touch a place of appreciation in my eyes and chest.
I also slowed down. After getting back in the car with my groceries all packed up I admired a pine tree in front of me that had a very distinct shape. I breathed and sat quietly for a few minutes before moving. Allowing my system time to make each transition.
On the way home, my eyes welled up with tears of relief. It would seem silly if you didn’t understand that these are the little ways our nervous systems feel the feelings – the anxiety and fear, then the sense that it’s over and then conveying to you that you’re safe and it’s okay. The feelings like relief come. They may include gratitude, or sometimes shaking or slight trembling or heat…. In my case, I felt tears of relief. A seemingly large response but an appropriate one that helped me keep staying in my body.
A friend with a chronic illness wrote about her grocery trip and how coming home and seeing her cats helped remind her – and her nervous system – that she was safe too.
7. Inviting Safety
Since arriving at my destination and settling in, I’ve slowly started to have more room to invite safety.
My craving to come to Oregon had included wanting to slow down, to stop, to be quiet, to retreat from society and other humans – which I certainly got (in spades).
When I had originally started thinking of this trip in January, I had thought I might make a trip to Portland and Seattle and the surrounding area to visit old friends and maybe even get together with some of you who read my blog. A part of me was excited by the idea. The Impulse was not.
So I kept paying attention to the impulse and how what it seemed to want was a quiet retreat.
I first got sick with a mild cold the day after arriving, as my system started to settle after being somewhat hypervigilant during my drive to help me complete my trip and get to safety.
I did not have my typical symptoms of a sore throat or runny nose. Nor did I have the typical coronavirus symptoms of shortness of breath, fever or coughing. But I had a profound and heavy fatigue when I lifted my arms or went for a walk, and a denseness in my body that felt like it was fighting an infection pretty intensively. So I quarantined.
It was another nudge to slow down (I have since almost fully recovered. All of this seems like a good sign that I am indeed improving and that my system has responded well despite the stressors).
A few days after arriving, while ruminating, I discovered that a) I was feeling intense fear as though I were a deer caught in the headlights that is completely stiff with terror and unable to move; and, even more importantly, b) that this feeling was OLD. It was more of an emotion than an actual physical stiffness or shutdown.
I hadn’t quite been able to reliably feel into this emotion that had been brewing over the past 6 months until that day. Even as I’d felt fear during my drive – I’d thought it was more about taking my adventure, heading out during the coronavirus, and taking a big new step.
It’s when I noticed the more direct sense of this feeling that I realized the intelligence behind my impulse to come to Oregon. An impulse that had lead me to find a large enough space, without interruption, without interaction, without being called to do or be or act in any way other than where I was, so that I might be able to heal more of this thing that had been too overwhelming to meet.
I was making room to invite more safety while I could be surrounded by the gentle softness of the tide, seabirds, and moss on tree trunks and growing through cracks on the side of the road.
8. Making Room For the Sense of Safety
A few nights after arriving, when I woke up in the early hours still feeling the stress and fear from news updates, I stayed in bed and wondered about my blog.
I had been planning to introduce you all on Friday to a new series in which I will begin to share your stories of how you work with your chronic illness and other symptoms from trauma and nervous system perspectives. Stories that share how it’s helping (if you’re interested, get in touch through my contact page or by email veronique (at) chronicillnesstraumastudies.com).
But I’d started to feel anxious about it the day before.
In the mulling time of feeling this anxiety as it mixed with the coronavirus fears, I could feel that I was pulled into it and was getting a bit convinced that something is wrong and that I am at risk way out here all by myself.
While there is some truth to that, it’s not 100% true.
Noticing this feeling helped me take a step back.
I could feel how, in that moment, in my bed, I was okay.
IN THAT MOMENT I was not in any danger.
That’s all we need when working with fear and other difficult emotions.
With this little bit of space of not believing everything I was thinking and feeling, I remembered my tools for working with my feelings.
I used a simple process called orienting, which I learned from Steve Hoskinson when he was faculty in my somatic trauma training with Somatic Experiencing, and who now teaches this and more at Organic Intelligence.
Orienting uses our social nervous system to focus our attention on something. We see wild animals orienting all the time – cocking their head, turning to see where a sound came from, listening and looking to identify whether there is a potential threat or to see if the coast is clear.
Orienting can also be used to notice what is neutral or pleasurable.
Orienting uses your senses such as sound and sight, hearing and taste.
These are part of our social nervous system.
Orienting to things that convey safety or pleasure is a way of INFORMING your nervous system of what is true in the present moment. It’s a way of overriding unconscious perceptions of threat and exchanging them for accurate new ones. It’s a way of conveying to your nervous system in a slow, methodical, gentle way that you are actually safe.
So this is a practice that helps shift gears and helps us come more into our bodies.
In the wee hours that morning, I oriented to what felt or looked or sounded good to me.
I oriented to the softness of the pillow under my cheek. Oriented to the fact that I can see the ocean from my bed during the day. Oriented to the comforting sound of gentle rain pitter pattering on my window pane. Oriented to the fact that I was dry and warm and cozy.
I noticed these little ripples of feeling good.
After a while, I placed my hand over my heart. If felt good there. Warm. Gentle. Comforting. Compassionate.
And then I started feeling warm little tendrils of love. Love for my courageous, hard-working, oh-so-earnest self. Love for how I am working with my fears.
Mostly, it was just a sense of warmth in my chest.
A sensation that is very different from freeze and fear.
I didn’t want to go to sleep as I felt this.
Even though I still felt the fear, I ALSO felt this sense of comfort. It made the fear less pervasive. Less important. Less scary and more of something that is just part of my life at the moment but not a big deal.
I then started to feel how much I wanted to share some of this with you – about working with fear and freeze.
This was a sign that I was starting to come into social nervous system territory. The part that wants to connect. To reach out. That is (more) okay with being vulnerable. A part that wants to be of service and to contribute in this time of need. A part that doesn’t want to miss feeling like I, too, am a part of this worldwide event that will change us all. A part of me that wants to be helpful before it’s all over. Because it will, indeed, be over at some point.
This was a part of me that doesn’t want to feel alone. Not out of fear – but because I am one with this world.
Because I am a social being.
Because I am not alone.
Because I, too, belong.
Know that these little practices are powerful tools that engage your social nervous system, and help gradually inhibit states of fight, flight and freeze that aren’t necessary. Know that these ways of working with fear and freeze also give you more resilience from infection. They help you be more fully who you are in this world, with all of your gifts that come from being just who you are.
I am thinking of you all and so glad to be in this with all of your bright, brave, beautiful souls.
Wishing you safety and support and love wherever you may be and whatever your circumstances are.
Summary of Tips for Calming Fear
Note. I’ve made some significant updates since first posting, including cutting the length down by half and shortening the list below since there were a few less points. I’ve made it more positive and created more room to invite safety as a way to help reduce feelings of fear and have more tools that build and support resilience.
- Listening for impulses
- Checking in with a question to see what your body says
- Trusting what your body says
- Orienting to the Present Moment
- Coming into the Present Moment
- Noting when you are safe, even for a moment
- Orienting to what feels neutral or positive to YOU
- Noticing what neutral or pleasurable feels like to YOU
- Noticing what safety feels like to you, even if for a moment
- Witnessing the feeling of fear as a sensation (rather than as a thought)
- Titrating and limiting your input of stress, such as the news, while staying in touch (such as with local events in your neighbourhood with apps like nextdoor)
- Increasing things that resource you such as music or getting a beautiful astronomy pic in your inbox every day or reading how others have conquered fear and are doing what feels right or listening to podcasts on how others have found their way through thick and thin to this trauma and nervous system based way of working with symptoms (and learning to love and accept and respect themselves in the process)
- Staying warm
- Eating as well as you can
- Mind body practices
- Connecting with that which resources you – people, nature, your animals, art
15 Tips for Healing Through Impulse & Play
Making Time for Chronic Illness Resources (Tips for Healing Chronic Illness)
Shhhh Listen! Do You Hear Your Social Nervous System Calling? (7 Tips for Healing Chronic Illness)
18 Stealthy Ways to Act Out & Heal Fight, Flight, Freeze and Disease
22 Encouraging Tips for Healing Chronic Illness from a Trauma Perspective
Essential Guide to Chronic Illness, Trauma and The Nervous System: Keys to Quelling the Volcano
Thanks for this wonderful blog. I am in Minnesota, I am a trauma survivor and a psychologist. The old fears that are being triggered most for me or fear of death. I have a lung disease, and Parkinson’s, and I am six65 years old. I just read an article about how they are going to triage ventilators, not good for those of us with pre-existing conditions. So if you have any tips on how to work with this fear I would love to hear them
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
It makes sense that our old fears can be triggered right now during the increased stress. As a person with a chronic illness, it also makes sense that there is old trauma that may make us more sensitive to fear.
Working with fear is a practice and it involves cultivating the part of our nervous systems that are able to feel some degree of safety or something neutral, even if it is very tiny. Being gentle and going for tiny is actually useful for many of us with chronic illness because the parts of us that feel fear are there because they believe they are keeping us safe. We don’t want those parts to feel we are removing their very important “job,” instead we just want to make their job a little bit easier so that we can take care of ourselves a little bit better (this is also one way we chip away and work with healing old traumas).
One way to work with fear is to allow or specifically yet gently focus our attention on something else. We are not trying to eliminate fear or push it away, and we are not trying to force ourselves into something else. We are allowing our attention to go to something that feels more neutral or even a little bit pleasurable (something visual, such as a color in the room or the way the light comes in, or something you feel such as the sensation of the chair or cushion or bed and the fabric or surface, or a sound such as the quiet or a bird chirping). After our attention lands on that, we allow ourselves a moment or two to notice what that is like for us – maybe our breath softens a tiny bit, or we become aware of a slight bit of comfort somewhere in our bodies … and then we let our attention go back out to rest on something. This is a practice. One can do it at any time and throughout the day and also be reducing input from things that are more stressful (less news, less time on the computer, less time with someone else who is anxious and more time with a person who is calmer or a pleasurable or funny or gentle video on youtube etc).
The practice will be different for each one of us.
This is clearly just one practice but it is something one can actively do. You can learn more about this practice in a colleague’s website where you can download a text called “positive body awareness.” You can also learn more about 10 tools I recommend on this post.
IF watching and listening to someone has any appeal, consider this recent one hour youtube video with a trauma specialist Peter Levine – there is an introduction by someone giving him an award, which may be of interest, and then Peter talks in a way that may feel calming, soothing, supportive. And it may not for you but if of interest, give it a try.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
There are other things, of course, that can also help – each will be different for every person, and if you don’t already have these (you may have all this in place already) – consider these if available:
– someone who can offer emotional support (a friend, family member, therapist, clergy, community member by phone or online; or online community that is supportive … etc), someone you could call on in the event you did get sick (your physician or any of these other support people etc) so that you have someone identified just in case you needed any kind of help (knowing we are not alone can go a long way to reducing stress at a time like this);
– physical support (whether getting groceries for you or you getting groceries during the early hours for those more vulnerable; eating well,
– staying warm etc), and continuing with any and
– all self care practices you may already have (or beginning one or more if you do not, that are a good fit for you), whether listening to music or something else you enjoy, meditation if your system tolerates it, yoga or a mindfulness practice; getting to bed at a regular time every night and keeping a routine and those types of things
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I am updating this Third response to add a little more clarity and information – Third, in response to your very real question about potential ventilator shortages. It is appropriate and helpful for us to know the truth and acknowledge the risk about an invisible threat like this virus and what might happen. We use our fear to do everything we can to maximize our safety (such as this stay-at-home order, which also maximizes the safety of others).
We can also support ourselves and our nervous systems by finding a source of information that feels reliable and trustworthy TO YOU so that you have accurate information and facts (For example, I’ve been listening to our governor here in Colorado (Jared Polis), who gives live updates on facebook on weekdays and who talks in a calm, neutral, regulated way (and I see that in MN you are also on a stay at home order). It helps me to know what is happening and what we can actively do.
As you probably know, but our nervous systems may not fully feel, this stay at home plan is designed to not only help each of us stay safe, but also to gain us the time we need to flatten the curve of coronavirus cases so that we can grow capacity everywhere to have enough ventilators and ICU beds so that we maximize the very real potential that everyone who needs care can be taken care of. ….
Once we have the best information that we can get, we then have things we can do that are within our control and that can help with the fear.
This is the time when we work with the extra fears that come along for a ride, and that can make it extra difficult in a time like this.
This EXTRA fear comes from our bodies and also our thoughts – so it helps to recognize when we are going into thoughts about the future and potential risk. When we know that our thoughts can be unhelpful (and I realize this is something you may be very skilled at as a psychologist but am stating it to just make it overt) we can then begin to instead practice – in this moment, today – how to help our nervous systems recognize that right now, we are not in that situation (or that we are in whatever situation we are actually in, but only RIGHT NOW, in this moment and not 1 minute from now or 5 minutes or 3 hours from now).
From the place of RIGHT NOW, we can then work with our system using all the kinds of resources I write about in this post. Orienting… experimenting… self compassion,… non judgement… making space… being gentle with ourselves. Mindfulness. a Mind body practice. Being with the feelings. Or orienting to pleasure etc.
This takes time. And effort. and will. It is, essentially, a Practice.
This is one of the biggest and best tools we can use and that we have access to.
I hope this helps in some way. Know that you are not alone. Thanks so much for writing and sharing what is happening for you – stay tuned. I’m working on more resources.
warmly and with love to you,
Elaine Walker says
Hi Veronique, thank you for all of this. As someone edging out of freeze it is enormously helpful to see myself in some of your writing.
Something jumped out at me when I read about social nervous system. I have been housebound for the past 5 years, bedbound for the past 10 months. In that time very few friends have stayed in contact, mostly by text. I have been grateful for this but recently began to wonder about the relationships I have made. Reading your blog I realised that they are also people who avoid intimacy. Having spent many hours, weeks, years in therapy over the 67 years of my life, I understand myself more deeply now. Reading your blog I saw that my frustration with lack of meaningful contact reflects my own protective/defensive attitude and has left me more isolated than necessary. Hah!!
After feeling I was making some progress at the beginning of March, since the escalation of Covid-19 I have slid backwards again. The anxiety and fear for myself, my adult children and husband has eaten up all my energy and I feel such despair at losing the ground I gained. I feel unsupported as it is mostly DIY for me medically. (In the UK there is hardly any support for ME/CFS and I have POTS too. My GP has no understanding of either condition. )
On a good day I can allow the fear, the grief, the despair. I can soften into it. I think the additional stress of the virus is almost like an actual physical increase of allostatic load. On a bad day I find it impossible to see any meaning or value in a bedbound life. Your blog gives me hope. Thank you.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks for writing and especially for sharing what is helpful and that you’ve had some really significant insights.
AND – as a sign of just how accessible your social nervous system is right now, you are not only connecting through this comment, but you are even able to laugh (or smirk or grin or hint at humor or whatever it actually is) with your Hah!!
I agree with you about this increase in allostatic load from the current situation. Keep doing what you’re doing – on the good days and on the other ones doing as best you can – because you are absolutely right, there is HOPE!!
Sending you a gentle, spacious hug :-)
Martha Lauren says
First off, a warm “hello” from over the mountains! (I am in Portland.) I haven’t been to the coast in about a decade due to my own illness, but the feeling of sand between the toes and salty air crisping the hair (remembering/imagining those two sensations is about the only ‘visualization’ exercise that I naturally and frequently run) is one of my main motivating factors for doing all that I can to be well again; in order to get there again myself some day. So I’m so glad that you are getting some enjoyment in that exact environment right now! Kiss the ocean for me, will you please? (Only the normal amount of physical distancing required.)
I was actually doing the best I had with my health in the last few (3-4) months…walking every day, getting out and buying flowers every weekend after we walked our dogs in a new neighborhood or park…and then…the current world events set in. (This was after about a two year “at home retreat”, where I intentionally – and quite desperately – cut myself off from everyone in my life who was contributing to my sense of self doubt and disempowerment, or, outwardly doubting the realty of my condition. Sort of an “Urban Monk” one person clearing of the mind and bad baggage retreat.) So, suffice to say, another “term in the inside”, and, the added global collective shock of…
(…People just started banging pots and pans outside right now, 7pm, in recognition of the efforts and sacrifices of heath care workers. :)…)
…a threatening illness, the loss of normal access to medical care, and the loss of all normal socialization (of which I had so very little anyway), was just about the last thing that I would have hoped for, for my own nervous system right now. (In other words, the traumas that are collectively hitting the planet are so eerily in line with my own trauma from illness, it could not have been a worse pairing, for me.)
And yet, I am getting through, day by day. For one, by focusing my attention on the fact that this is not about me.
After a the first few days of productive preparation, I think it all sunk in, with a lag-time, and I felt myself stalling out. Going back into the more I learned too well when enormously sick, having no heath care, and no idea how to help myself. (Freeze.) But over the last few days I have forcibly been putting one foot back in front of the other, headed in the direction that I’d rather go, and that I know my partner and dogs need me to move in. Mostly, by taking the best care of my system overall that I know how…and, by following up on many of the wonderful links that people like you are making us all aware of.
I did the short Lumos Transforms free training on Saturday, and have now signed up for their three day course starting in April. And I’ve been watching the clinical mindfulness series through the OI. Also doing my PTSD acupressure routine every night…and yoga every day…but also, sometimes just sitting with the fear and anxiety that inevitably creeps in anyway, around all of that, and just feeling it (much as you describe). And, in some ways, for the first time feeling it fully…
I have watched as the whole world around us is suddenly changing its tune, and agreeing: illness is scary, death is an imminent possibility, lack of standard medical care is a frightening prospect, and a lack of social connection (especially for those who are unwell, isolated, and afraid) is damaging to the psyche and the nervous system. It’s as though the whole world is suddenly aware of those same factors that have most centrally affected me all these years (most centrally formed my entire existence)…and agreeing: yes, these are not good circumstances for a human being. Another layer of this realization (and, of their realization) seems to settle into my consciousness every day: and I feel like, oh, that WAS appropriate for me to feel that way…frightened, stressed, very aware that I was in real danger. Alone.
It’s all quite surreal.
But I’m also (more intentionally) reminding myself every day of the tools that I’ve since collected, and of the connections that I’ve begun to make, as I slowly continue to crawl my way in the direction of following my deepest healing instincts…(where I found your blog, and even started my own: still under construction!)….
And now, as a result of the current terrible situation, I have my sights far more clearly narrowed onto doing whatever I can to reclaim my own health and proper neuro-regulation, and then, do whatever I can, from my position, to help others who are still crawling to reclaim theirs as well.
So, stress and grief and trauma and healing and discovery and hope, are all wrapped up into one giant ball for me these days (like the giant kelp that collects at the edge of the tide, risen up from somewhere deep below). I don’t know what will come out of it all, but I do know it will be something NEW. (Not just the tangle that I was caught in for so many years!)
This is all to jarring to not be significantly moved.
Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and work and brave adventure. Stay safe and well. (And, be reassured, the Oregon coast always looks more gray than refreshing after a few days, or weeks, there…until you fall in love with the gray, and then all you begin to see is wet and happy green!) :)
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Hi urban monk over the mountain Martha!
So eloquently put, all of it. What you say really resonates and I can see and feel just how much you have been working with your health and your nervous system and from these powerful perspectives. Here’s to doing all and whatever we can in as clear, direct ways as possible to reclaim our health and regulation, our capacity to connect and to be who we are, and to inspire others to continue on their like-journeys and to find new hope from these perspectives.
I love the kelp – I’m a huge fan of kelp and sea turtles and things that move slowly – my system simply loves slow mo. One of my own metaphors has been crawling out of the Grand Canyon as I work with my health :-).
The sun is out this morning after about a week of lovely rain and both have been awesome to witness. I continue to feel blessed here in this sweet space. Thank you for saying it all so clearly and nonjudgmentally and spaciously. I think others will resonate with it as well. Wishing you well with your blog construction and your journey and practice and with all that is changing and heading into something new.