Every time I got in the car, I started humming. For months after my son died, it was the same simple lullaby. I sang my way through Driver’s Ed too, sweaty palms gripping the wheel and Ooh Child (Things are Gonna Get Easier) playing over and over in my head. And now, I find these ear worms returning, with the same soothing effect, and I understand why.
Our world has become more scary and we all feel it. The threat to our health, the financial uncertainty, the emotional upheaval, the isolation – they take a toll on our ability to calm ourselves. Regulating our nervous systems feels difficult. And that difficulty shows up in a bunch of different ways. We might have trouble sleeping or sticking to our regular exercise routines. We might not feel productive. Old pains, long quiet, resurface. And the pain is real. Yeah, we are all hurting in one way or another.
So much of how we regulate emotional and physical sensations starts with our bodies. Interoception means receiving and appraising internal body signals. Those signals come from organs, muscles and joint receptors and are important in creating survival responses used under threat. The Vagus system gathers information from our bodies, and delivers it to the insula, a part of the brain that helps generate feelings. So, when you clench your jaw in anger, or hunch your shoulders for protection, it’s the tension in the body that signals the brain and generates the emotion.
Being able to regulate our nervous systems is important as we navigate this new territory. It’s not that we should always stay in a state of complete rest; this is not only unrealistic but also not how we’re designed. We are stimulated by some perceived threat or opportunity and we return to a calm state. This is called self-regulation and it’s important to overall health.
But right now, our nervous systems are on hyper-drive. You have a cough that you think is allergies, but you don’t really know. Stress increases from getting too close to people in the grocery store, and yet you yearn for more human connection. With the continual sense of threat, self-regulation is harder. And the hyper-vigilance causes inflammation, rapid and shallow breathing, more sensitivity to pain, and sluggish intestines. These physiological responses help in the short term to “fight or flight”, but if they continue long term, it’s trouble.
Here’s a quick way to test your own nervous system’s ability to self-regulate:
- Take a small, effortless breath in through your nose and then allow a small, effortless breath out through your nose.
- Hold your nose with your fingers to prevent air from entering your lungs. Start counting seconds.
- Count the seconds until you notice the first definite urge to breathe in. (This doesn’t mean holding your breath until you feel like you are going to pass out.)
- Upon feeling the urge, calmly breathe back in through the nose.
- How many seconds did you hold your breath?
A healthy breath hold amounts to 30-40 seconds – a normalized respiratory drive. Average is 25, but right now most of us are probably under that. 15 seconds or less indicates chronic stress. Lots of fit folks do 5 seconds or less; it’s not a measure of fitness, it’s a measure of stress.
Relax, you got this…
You can start to change your stress level with a few simple exercises:
Fill up a cup of water and take a moderate sip. Leaning the he ad back, vigorously gargle the water for as long as possible. Once out of air, swallow the water and repeat until the glass is empty. Do 1-2 cups of water per day.
Pursed Lip Breathing:
Inhale through the nose, and exhale gently but intentionally through pursed lips for as long as possible without straining. Then pause for 3 seconds before inhaling again. Do: 3-5 minutes 1-2 times per day.
Take a normal sized inhale through your nose, then exhale and hum at a frequency that vibrates the throat, chest, and maybe even the abdomen. Go as long as possible without straining, then breathe back in through the nose and repeat. Continue this for 2-5 minutes. Perform this exercise 2x/day. Great places to do this are in the car or in the shower.
Gently place the palms over the orbits of the face, without actually pressing on the eyes themselves. The eyelids should be closed. Notice the darkest areas of your visual space and let the eyes settle into orbits. Do: 5 minutes 2-3 times per day.
Therapists at ALTA are working both remotely and, in the office, to help clients through this difficult time. We have exercises and resources to help calm your nervous system and alleviate pain. Please reach out to your individual therapist via email or call Nifer at the front desk.
We want to help. It’s what we do. And now, more than ever, we are all here for you.