Written by Afshan Tafler
“I wonder when this is going to end?” is the question I find myself asking everyday.
I immediately go online to search the latest data on Covid-19. No signs of relief yet. My breathing becomes shallow, my heart pounds in my chest and I find my thoughts going to “what if this never ends?”
I quickly push that thought away and rush out to the grocery store. As I walk around the store, I see people wearing masks and surgical gloves. It feels surreal. Walking by others I notice how they quickly avert my gaze and dart away from me with a scared look on their faces.
This is the reality we live in today. Everyone is in FEAR…and for valid reasons: fear of contracting the virus, fear of the uncertainty this situation brings, not knowing when it’s going to end, and what damages may lay ahead in life, especially financially.
But we know that fear results in stress which results in a depleted immune system, rendering us more susceptible to the virus. So how do we shift this fear into what we need to feel most – SAFETY?
Signs that fear is taking over
The first step of helping you get to safety is to become aware that fear is taking you over.
Obvious signs of fear in the moment are a pounding heart, rapid breathing, shaky legs, nausea or butterflies in the stomach, as well as anxiety or a panic attack. Many of us are also finding ourselves having intruding fearful thoughts.
But if we are not noticing the above, then some not so obvious signs of stress and fear can be exhaustion, insomnia, stomach aches, teeth grinding, aches and pains, eating more, finding yourself getting frustrated and angry more, and finding yourself wanting to disconnect and shut everything and everyone out.
This is all normal considering these unprecedented times we are living in. It’s not your fault.
From a nervous system perspective, your body is sensing a real threat and reacting to the environment with the above cues of lack of safety.
How the body responds to fear messaging
From the news, to emails, to friends and country leaders, the fear messaging is everywhere. Our physiological state of fear is the consequence of reacting to the world we live in.
From a Polyvagal theory perspective, we know that our nervous system automatically responds to our environment by going from Social Engagement/Safety into Fight, Flight, or Freeze. We have a threat detection system, known as Neuroception, which takes in cues from the environment automatically without our conscious awareness and elicits a body response in the form of “get ready to fight” (fight), “I better escape!” (flight), “I need to shut down and numb out” (freeze) or “I’m feeling safe and want to socially engage.”
From our nervous system response comes our automatic emotional reactions. Feelings of agitation, frustration and anger often come up to protect us from feeling the vulnerable emotions of fear. Going into a “fight” state is much more power-giving and safety-provoking than being in an immobilized state of fear where there is nothing you can do to change the circumstance.
Once our body responds automatically, it sends the message up to our brain and our brain must make a story of what’s going on. The story we make can determine the degree of fear or defense states we go into, or can determine the degree of safety we can feel in that moment.
In the fear state, what we want most is to get to safety, and our first line of defense to get to safety is to socially engage and connect with others so that we can co-regulate and feel safe. But with the demands to socially distance and the messaging to fear strangers, this leaves our nervous system in a conundrum, automatically resorting to fight, flight or freeze.
What the body and nervous system need to feel safe
Our nervous system craves co-regulation (connecting with other humans and animals), predictability, clarity and choice to feel safe. Our nervous system needs to know how, what and why in order to come into safety. We need these cues of safety to help our bodies relax and trust that all will be ok.
Currently our choices are limited, we cannot socially engage in person, and we are not clear on what’s happening, so we are not getting many of the cues of safety our nervous systems need.
We need to stay in contact with our nervous systems and provide choices that are nourishing and provide safety cues in order to move out of fear and stress and back into calm.
7 ways to help you move from fear to safe
So much of what happens to you and how you feel is driven by your nervous system state. Most of the time you don’t choose to be in fear or react. It just happens automatically. This is because your mental-emotional state is a “bio-psychological phenomena” (Dr. Stephen Porges), emerging from your body sensations.
Although we can’t control the automatic reactions of our nervous system, we can help, from a conscious place, to change our nervous system state, and hence feel more in control, and most importantly, more safe.
Here are 7 ways to help you shift your nervous system from a state of fear to one of safety:
1. Become aware of your nervous system state
Getting to know your nervous system is imperative to understanding the state that has hijacked you. Check in throughout your day and notice what you are feeling in your body. Tightness? Shallow breath? Exhausted? Wanting to numb out or check out? Energized? Agitated? Scan your body and notice what you are feeling. If you’re not in a calm, relaxed, presently engaged and open to socially connect state, then you’re likely in fight, flight or freeze.
Once you know your nervous system state, you may find a lot of relief in just knowing that your body has automatically gone into this state. From here, you can start to give it cues to get back to safety, by first asking: “What does my nervous system crave right now to feel safe?”
2. Create social interaction to co-regulate
As humans, we are wired to connect with others. It is our biological imperative and how we survive. Think of babies – they could not survive without that physical connection and co-regulation with another human being. Our nervous system craves connecting with others and we feel safe when we socially engage.
Every day find a way to have meaningful connection with others. Whether it’s making a conscious effort to hug your family, or sit and hold hands and feel connected. Or, if you’re alone, find opportunities to connect with others via videoconference or phone, where you can hear their voice and feel their support through their voice. Hearing a soft, prosodic, caring tone of voice can be very regulating to the nervous system.
3. Breathe to activate your Vagus nerve
Breathing is the simplest, easiest tool to help your nervous system to get to calm. When we breathe with a slower, longer out-breath then you activate the Vagus nerve, which is the calming nerve that goes from the brain to the organs. When we breathe into the belly, and blow out (through your nose or mouth) a longer, slower outbreath, this activates the Vagus nerve to send calming messages back up to your brain.
Take time throughout your day to practice this breathing to signal to your body and brain that you are safe and ok.
4. Sing or hum
Singing automatically helps you to take longer, slower out-breaths. It changes your physiological state to feel calmer and happier and lifts your spirits.
Throughout your day, find times to sing, or have singing time with your family or friends on videoconference!
5. Know your glimmers
The term glimmers comes from Deb Dana, who is the leading therapist bringing Dr. Stephen Porges’ work into clinical practice. Knowing your glimmers is knowing what nourishes your nervous system and helps you feel calm, relaxed and brings a smile to your face.
Throughout your day, notice what makes you smile, what makes you feel safe and take in those moments consciously. Simmer those moments and stay with the feelings of them longer as this nourishes your nervous system. You can also intentionally bring in glimmers into your day to help take you out of defense and into safety.
6. Get moving
At first, fear can create mobilizing energy in our system, nudging at us to flee or fight, but if for a prolonged period we cannot do anything, then we can go into an immobilized or shut down state. We want to prevent this from happening and movement can really help.
In addition to exercising, you can create more opportunities to move throughout your day. I like to get up every hour and do some energizing movements or dance around with my son. It really helps to lift me out of any defense states!
Moving also helps to release any trapped energy and agitation or frustration we may be feeling from the more mobilized defense states.
7. Expand safety energy
Take some time to get quiet and locate where in your body you may be feeling the energy of safety, kindness and connection. This can be found in your heart, chest area, or somewhere else. Dial that energy up and let it grow to envelop your whole body. Be with this energy, letting your whole nervous system bathe in it until you feel nourished and safe.
How parents can help kids to feel safe
As parents, it is our responsibility to be messengers of the cues of safety and reduce the cues of danger. Our children look to us to regulate themselves.
But in this stressful time, we are likely finding ourselves getting agitated and angry a lot, or in fear and disconnection. As a result, our kids may be having more meltdowns or fighting more with us. It’s natural. Our nervous systems are all feeding off each other! The key is to practice the 7 steps above to get back to a regulated state once you notice you’re in defense mode.
From here, you can provide cues of safety to your children. The message you want to convey through your voice and body language is “I am a safe person to be close to…I am a comforter and you can co-regulate with me.”
The best cues of safety to children are using a soft prosodic voice, smiling more (as children read our faces all the time!), and having an energy of compassion for their behaviors (which are likely escalating right now), knowing it’s just their nervous system reacting and it’s not their fault.
Keep in mind that HOW we communicate is more important than words as children’s nervous systems will read your nervous system first and may bypass the words being said.
Feeling in control
Moving from states of fear and defense to a more regulated, safe state involves getting to know your body and understanding the automatic reactions that bubble up from your nervous system. It is from this understanding that you can be back in a place of control and choice. Once you realize what state your nervous system is in, you can gently guide it back to where you want it to be – safety!
About Afshan Tafler
Afshan Tafler is a Whole Life Coach and Conscious Parenting Coach who helps you discover your power to transform your emotional health so you can handle life’s challenges with resiliency, create more connected relationships, and live from your full life force energy.
You can learn more about Afshan and her services at www.illuminateu.ca
How Unyte-iLs Can Help
In addition to the 7 steps, Unyte-iLs has amazing tools that can help you to calm that automatic nervous system response and bring you back to safety. The Safe and Sound Protocol is designed to help rewire your vagus nerve and return your body and nervous system to safety.