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Simple Strategies to Survive a Crisis

Jen Wood
2nd Apr. '20

Life feels tough at the moment. The news and social media are full of distressing information. It can feel overwhelming and exhausting.

In addition to that, many of us are juggling our new living and working arrangements that social distancing has thrust upon us. Home schooling, navigating new technologies and caring for children and vulnerable relatives and neighbours is not easy, even for the most resilient. Some of us are key-workers, not able to retreat into the safety of our homes, and feeling anxious about the consequences.

Psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach recently reminded me of a quote by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh; ‘When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centred, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.’

Over these last few days I have found myself at times getting caught up in the panic and feeling overwhelmed. There have been other moments when I have also been able to draw on my resources and experience as a therapist, emotional wellbeing coach and mindfulness teacher.

I believe we all have the capacity to reconnect to our inner resources and be that person on the boat who remains calm, and in doing so transforms the lives of others. I’m sharing some simple practices here, in the hope that at least one of them might help you to do that.

Posture:  Sitting upright with a comfortably straight back. Imagine there was a golden thread attached to the crown of your head, pulling you up slightly, so you feel your spine lengthen. Relax your shoulders and open your chest. Notice how this stable, open posture feels. Our body language can impact our mood, so if we are aware of this and adopt a relaxed posture, we will feel more relaxed.

Smile:  Imagine that you’re smiling at your closest friend. If you can, smile with your whole face. Smiling, and laughter, can help release oxytocin, which is the bonding (or cuddle) hormone. This can shift your experience of fear. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like smiling or laughing. Just pretending has the same effect.

Grounding:  Notice the soles of your feet on the floor and the weight and pattern of sensation of your body resting against whatever you’re sitting on. You might feel some sensation in your body, like tingling, or hot or cold. Dropping your focus into your body, allow the nervous system to settle. You could try walking in your garden or other safe outdoors place with bare feet, as it feels very grounded to connect with the earth.

Breathing:  Start to bring attention to your breath as you breathe in and out through your nose. Notice how cool the air feels as you breathe in, and warmer as you breathe out. Use this awareness of the breath to tune into the state of your nervous system. You might become aware of some of the physical signs of anxiety such as shallow and irregular breathing. As much as possible, try to accept your breath as you find it. Then deepen the breath as you feel the abdomen expanding as you breathe in, and flattening and softening as you release the breath. Notice how that feels. Then, become aware of the speed of the in breath. If you are breathing in for a count of 3, then breathe out for a count of 3. Then see if you can slow it down to breathing in for 4 and out for 4, and finally breathing in for 5 and out for 5. If you can do this for 3 minutes, you will start to settle your threat system and activate your soothing system.

Words:  Using soothing words and phrases can be very helpful. One of my favourites is ‘this too shall pass’. Ask yourself what words you most need to hear, and imagine that they are being whispered into your ear. ‘Darling, you will be ok.’ If it’s hard to find words that you might say to yourself, think about how you would comfort a distressed child.

Soothing Touch: Place your hand or hands over your heart, feeling the gentle pressure and warmth and feel the connection and movement of your chest and you breathe in and out. If putting your hand over your heart doesn’t feel comfortable, experiment with other areas like a hand on your cheek, abdomen, giving yourself a hug or cupping your hands together in your lap.

Here-and-now pebble:  Find a smooth pebble or similar object that you can keep in your pocket or bag. Allow yourself to experience your pebble with all of your senses. Notice that when you are appreciating the beauty of your pebble, you are in the moment ,and there is no time to get swept away in panic. Whenever you feel overwhelmed by fear, panic or any difficult emotion, feel the pebble against your fingers and come home to the present moment.

5-4-3-2-1 method:  Starting from 5, use all your senses to list things you notice around you. You could start by listing five things you hear, then four things you see, then three things you can touch from where you are, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. Try to notice things that you might not usually be aware of, like distant sounds or the sensation of your clothing against your skin.

Morning and evening rituals:  These are two of the most important moments of our day and if we practice nurturing habits at these times it can have a huge impact on our mood and resilience.

Morning Ritual – as you get up, pause for a moment on the side of your bed with your feet on the floor, and say to yourself, or out loud, ‘this is going to be a good day.’ If it feels impossible to say that, try to add the word ‘somehow’ at the end. This can open up the possibility of things improving.

Evening Ritual – lying down in bed and relaxing your body from head to toe (use what works for you) and say to yourself ‘I am going to sleep deeply and sweetly and wake up feeling refreshed and nourished.’ (or whatever words feel right).

3 Good Things: Research shows that this practice can improve our resilience. At the end of the day, write down 3 things that went well for you today, and why. Then see if you can feel the positive emotions associated with these things. They can be tiny things, so don’t worry about not having a list of big achievements.

Self-Care:  In times of crisis, self-care is even more important. Many of the suggestions above are self-care. Don’t worry if you don’t have a lot of time. You only need to start with a minute of self-care per day to feel the benefits.

Safe Space: Visualise, sense or remember a place which you find safe and comforting. Remember what it looked like (and if you feel like you’re making it up that’s perfect), what it felt like to be there and if there were any sounds. The more vividly you can imagine this safe space, the more easily you will be able to access it when you need it. You might imagine yourself in nature, on a rocking chair or wrapped up in a cosy blanket in a room in front of the fire.

Name it to tame it: If you can name your difficult emotion, you can reduce its power. ‘This is fear.’ Also notice where you feel it in your body, and what it needs to settle. Remind yourself that you are not alone, and it is normal to feel distress in times of crisis. These techniques are drawn from the wide range of therapeutic, coaching and mindfulness interventions that I often find helpful for clients who are in distress. They come from ancient wisdom and modern science, and have been taught to me by many skilful teachers to whom I have so much gratitude.

Our brains have a negativity bias, resulting in a tendency to respond more strongly to negative things than to positive ones. This is not our fault, but just the way our tricky brains have evolved. It helps us to survive rather than thrive.

However, I am comforted by the fact that our brains can be rewired by focusing on our positive events, feelings and experiences. It’s sometimes said that we need 3 positive feelings to balance out a difficult emotion. By using some of the techniques mentioned above, and training ourselves to focus on love, kindness and compassion, we can offset the fear of this pandemic. It may sound strange, but also welcoming the fear can also help us to process it more effectively.

Love is contagious. Compassion is contagious. Kindness is contagious. Let’s spread them as far and wide as we can.

Jen Wood is an emotional wellbeing coach, psychotherapist and wellbeing consultant.

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