Traumatized by . . . a SQUIRREL!
It’s 4am. I’m awakened by a scritch, scritch, scritch sound on my bedroom window screen. I look up to see the silhouette of a squirrel against the window shade. I say this little silent prayer, “Please God, let that squirrel be on the outside of my window and not the inside”. I decide, in my petrified state, that the best way to test this out is to touch the shade. *#%*! You guessed it, through the shade my fingers touched the squirrel body. At which point the squirrel jumped off the windowsill into my bedroom. I, in a full body sweat, am screaming at the poor thing, “Get out of here! I don’t want you in my house?”
Trauma is not about the event itself, but how your body, mind and nervous system record it. I would assert that the past couple of years have left so many of us in some level of trauma response. So, if you are experiencing fatigue or memory issues, impatience or a shortened fuse, decreased productivity, seemingly unprovoked feelings of anxiety or sudden feelings of despair or hopelessness, or a general sense of “things are not quite right”, you are not alone. These are some of the challenges, with which so many are still coping as our nervous systems continue to metabolize this prolonged hitch in life as we knew it.
While the worst of the pandemic does seem to be in our rearview, it is truly not yet over and there are lingering effects on our bodies and minds. The virus, the fear and the social isolation, which cut us off from some of the very means we normally use to recover from personal challenges, have all left lasting physiological imprints on our nervous systems.
Just last month, The World Health Organization declared that, “The impact of COVID-19 on mental health cannot be made light of”. Some experts suggest that post-pandemic mental health recovery could take a generation.
We yogis do have the power to coax that recovery process along for ourselves. The thing is, that many of the effective antidotes to these injuries to our nervous systems are quite simple and may even come across as airy-fairy or unconvincing.
Because I so want you to stick with them and get the results you need, I am offering a brief scientific explanation of the impact the pandemic had on our nervous systems, why it was difficult to resolve and how the steady use of simple practices can remedy them. This will be followed by a number of doable actions you can intersperse throughout your day as well as a link to the Inspiration Membership that can provide you with many more.
I’ll start with a concept called Window of Tolerance, a neuroscience term coined by Dan Siegel, MD to describe the state of arousal of the nervous system. The window of tolerance describes the range within which you are functioning optimally and are able to read and respond readily and appropriately to events and even stressors in your environment. The areas outside that window show when your system is on high alert and over-reactive to events as well as when your system is shut down and unresponsive. This window will shrink or expand based on your state of resilience at any given time. See diagram below for a visual representation that will help to clarify.
The very first news of this novel virus in the world activated the stress response in each of us and sent our nervous systems into an overdrive, from which they have likely not yet fully recovered. This narrowed the window of tolerance for most of us.
These stress responses happen at the level of the autonomic nervous system(ANS), which is below our conscious control and even awareness. Our bodies are exquisitely designed to protect our survival in this way. The ANS detects danger or threat, the sympathetic branch of the ANS comes on board and simulates a flow of neurotransmitters and hormones that prepare the body to fight or flee. This cascade of reactions includes release of glucose to provide us with more energy, blood flow is diverted to major muscle groups, heart rate and blood pressure increase, immune system is boosted, clotting factor increased and non-essential functions like digestion are curtailed. Once the threat is no longer present the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, sometimes called “rest and digest”, comes back on board. This is where we are more creative and integrated, balanced and aligned, able to experience present moment awareness. The diagram below details the physiological effects of the parasympathetic vs sympathetic nervous systems.
This brings me back to resolution of the “squirrel incident”. My first line of defense was to call . . . my mom, who lived about 90 miles away. She, quite reasonably, said “don’t you have a maintenance man for your building?” Duh! Still, it is understandable when we are in that stress response, we are operating at the level of the primitive brain. I called the maintenance man, he came and, although he looked as scared as I felt, he captured the squirrel in a box and took him outside. I arrived late to my elementary school counseling job so that the story had pretty much spread through my building by my arrival. At some point during the day while I was visiting a classroom, my friend Janet, our art teacher and queen of practical jokes, stopped the presses on her second graders lesson plan. Instead she decided to have each child create a clay squirrel, which they then placed all around my office. I returned to later to find clay squirrels on nearly every surface. It was quite hilarious and I immediately knew who the culprit was. Having a relatively wide window of tolerance, the support of my mom, some quick resolution, comical and understanding colleagues, I was able to metabolize that experience quite quickly and move on without lasting ill effects.
However, when we are in prolonged stress as we have been over the past couple of years, the window of tolerance is likely to remain in a shrunken state. With the pandemic, racial inequalities being exhibited so clearly and heartbreakingly and our political climate as well as all the personal challenges and tragedies in our individual lives, many of us are functioning in a constant state of increased vigilance.
The thing is that our nervous system does not distinguish between a real or an imagined threat. So that when we have a fearful thought, as we may be having with the stop and start recovery from the pandemic, our ANS reacts in the same way it does to an actual physical threat.
This is where we can intervene in the process and encourage the parasympathetic response. We can do this by top down and by bottom up processing. Top down processing is when we employ the frontal cortex to reassure the body and nervous system that all is well. We can do this with a mantra, like “All is well”. Or by simply noting, oh I got frightened but now I see what is actually happening – giving the nervous system a reality check, if you will.
Bottom up processing is when we use body and breath practices that have physiological effects that send that same “all is well” message, but from the body. For example breathing practices that slow the breath and heart rates, poses that simulate a deeper breathing pattern or deep relaxation practices that bring our bodies into parasympathetic functioning.
With all of this in mind, let’s look at how you can start right now to mend your nervous system and bolster your wellbeing.
TOP DOWN PROCESSING:
NAME IT – When you label or name what is happening it activates your thinking brain. When in sympathetic response(fight/flight), your nervous system is acting at very primitive level. When we can name the event, it brings the thinking brain back on board and we can quiet the nervous system. I see what this is now. This is ok. .send msg to NS. I see what this, this is ok.
ORIENTING – Look around your environment. Name five things you see, three that you hear, and three sensations in your body. This situates you in the present moment, present situation, sending that signal to your nervous system that this is ok. I’m ok.
BOTTOM UP PROCESSING:
BREATH – This can be as simple as placing your hand on your tummy and inviting it to expand into your hand as you breathe in and settle back toward your spine as you breathe out. This invites a diaphragmatic breath, which is deeper and calming to your nervous system. Another option is measured breathing – you can begin by counting length of inhalation and exhalation. Gradually invite the exhalation to increase in length, maybe even to twice the length of the inhalation. The most important thing is to be gentle with this. Do not strain to reach the longer exhalation as that will negate any positive effects. The inhalation slightly engages the sympathetic nervous system, the exhale the parasympathetic. Practicing for at least five minutes will bring you to that parasympathetic rest and digest state.
ENGAGE YOUR SENSES – Pleasant scents, music or other sounds that you like and/or that evoke happy memories can bypass the brain and send messages of safety and comfort directly to the nervous system.
BODY – The body is incredible source of data for us and we can use particular positions to intentionally send messages that we are safe and ok. One that is supremely effective and can be done any time anywhere is sitting in a chair with legs uncrossed, feet flat on the floor – making contact with that solid steady support beneath you with both heels and balls of the feet. When we are in a fight or flight state we have the posture of being on the balls of our feet, ready to move. Feet flat says, I’m here and it’s ok to be here.
TOUCH – Make contact with yourself. Place a hand over your heart or on your shoulder, wrap your arms around yourself as in a hug. This truly acts on the brain, sending a message of reassurance and solace. You can also tuck yourself into a blanket, doing your best to snug all the edges under you to create a swaddled effect and rest into that. This combined with music or yoga nidra can be particularly effective.
Keep in mind that your body is doing its best to take care of you, do your best to appreciate it for doing all it does on your behalf despite all that you might have done/do that is not the best care for it. Know that you have more power than you may realize to reorient yourself. Interrupt rumination on the why’s . . . why am I so tired, why do I feel this way still, why is this happening, why …. See if you can find a pause point to step out of automatic pilot and make an intentional choice.
Viktor Frankl said “Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.”
Pausing and making that choice can be hard to do when we are activated. Use the practices above, those in the Inspiration Membership, those with which you are already familiar and comfortable; build your capacity to find that pause in increasingly difficult situations. The responses of the primitive brain are natural. It takes some effort to make the space to be able to choose differently, to turn from the automatic response, to keep yourself from going down that familiar rabbit hole and making a choice that aligns with your true values. You can do this. You can feel peaceful and whole again.
There are led recordings of many of these practices in the Inspiration Membership – check it out – you get a free two weeks trial to decide whether it’s for you or not.