Before Mental Health Month concludes, I thought it best to bring on board one of my closest friends for some discussion. Please help me welcome Lauren Goldberg (MSW, LCSW), a mental health professional who owns a therapy practice in Colorado called Secure Base Mental Health LLC. Lauren will guide us through how our nervous systems respond to stress (especially amid a pandemic) and how we can become flexible and responsive to our emotional needs through daily grounding practices. Believe me: You should want to read her advice. I’ve already gained some extra wisdom for my wellness journey thanks to the insights Lauren shares here and I’m confident you will too. And now, passing the torch to Lauren (see below)…
A Therapist’s Perspective
As a therapist, I am often asked my opinion on major current events involving mental health. It makes sense; people want advice, insight, and maybe even answers. They want to feel better. There’s never been a harder event to weigh in on than the COVID-19 pandemic. Why? Because I’m going through it with you.
Generally, there is some space between me, my family, and the major current event, but I am inundated as much as you are with the newest data, often conflicting information, and evolving requirements. Like everyone, I am constantly (daily, hourly, sometimes minute to minute!) adjusting the way I think about the world and how I interact with those around me. It is exhausting spending extra energy navigating tasks that used to be second nature. Plus, I can’t forget the ever-present message that the world is not a safe place. That’s enough to throw anyone’s nervous system into a tizzy!
When Maggie asked me to be a guest on WellnessWinz, I initially thought “what do I know?!” These are such unprecedented times. There’s no context from which to draw on to provide “magical insight.”
What I quickly realized is I do have insight. It may not be magical, but perhaps it can be useful. After all, the same principles can be applied to navigating a pandemic (wow, that word alone is charging!) as they can be to any stressful situation. There are key concepts that I apply to my work with every client, regardless of their circumstances.
The Autonomic Nervous System
My approach to therapy is based on the value of safe relationships and developing the capacity for autonomic nervous system regulation. My main goal as a therapist is to help my clients feel safe enough to connect to me and, as a result, connect to their own experiences. Let me break that down…
I’m sure everyone is familiar with the term “nervous system.” When I reference it here, I am referring to the autonomic nervous system (ANS) which responds to cues of safety and danger. It helps us know when it is safe to connect and when we must protect ourselves from a threat. There are three modes (or “neural circuits of regulation” if you want to sound fancy) that our ANS shifts into as it responds to the environment. Two of them are more commonly referenced – mobilization (fight/flight) and immobilization (freeze). Side note: There’s also the “fawn” response if you’re a nerd like me and want to do additional research.
An individual’s nervous system drops into fight, flight or freeze when a threat is perceived in the environment, whether the origin is internal or external. These threats do not have to be acute, life-threatening events but can also be chronic, low-level stressors, such as developmental trauma (i.e. not having basic emotional and/or physical needs met throughout one’s life). Responding to repeated threats of safety without the opportunity to re-regulate can decrease resiliency in one’s nervous system. I’ll explain this more in a bit.
The third circuit that is rarely talked about but just as important is called “safe and social.” This is the mode from which we feel safe enough to connect to ourselves and others. In this regulated state, we have access to logical thinking and can learn, communicate and engage with others.
A healthy ANS is flexible enough to respond to an incoming “threat” and recover quickly. However, many people lack this flexibility and end up spending more time in survival mode than in a safe and social state. Generally, this is a result of upbringing and life circumstances. Our nervous systems are so smart that they can be “trained” to look for threats. This can be advantageous when there are threats, particularly in childhood when we have no choice but to adapt to our circumstances.
The Disconnect Between Brain & Body
What happens when we logically know our environment is safe but our nervous system is still stuck in survival mode?
This disconnect between our logical brain (i.e. “mind”) and our survival brain (i.e. “body”) causes what we call dysregulation and brings with it some seriously unpleasant symptoms. A person with chronic dysregulation may experience anxiety, depression, fatigue, pain, intensified autoimmune responses, irritable bowel, an inability to problem-solve, difficulty connecting with others, and a myriad of other symptoms.
Amidst the global novel virus pandemic (yikes!), some people are spending more time in survival mode as their nervous systems shift away from connection (safety) and towards protection (danger). The world as we know it no longer exists. Our way of moving through life with relative ease and predictability is now replaced with reminders to protect ourselves, stay vigilant in our interactions with others, and deal with the grave uncertainty of our future, not to mention financial stress, social isolation, and serious illness.
Mindfully Navigating a New & Stressful World
So what can we do to help ourselves navigate this new world, especially with the number of “danger” cues around us? It is difficult to manage the influx of advice and information and to integrate so many changes without access to critical thinking. Remember, our logical brain goes offline in survival mode. To bring it back online, we must show our nervous system it is safe to come out of protection and get back to connection.
While the concept is simple, it is not easy. It takes practice, but the good news is, the more we practice, the easier it becomes. We can literally show our nervous system a different way to “be,” one small step at a time. Even in the midst of a pandemic, our bodies can be trained to notice safety cues. This does not mean ignoring discomfort in our systems; it means learning how to experience comfort and discomfort at the same time. Mindful practice can help our systems move fluidly between the two. Remember, a healthy nervous system is one that is flexible.
There are certain things we can do to show our system signs of safety and even joy. If we focus on these cues instead of cues of danger, we can build our capacity for regulation. I’ve included some suggestions below. Figure out what works for you. You can do this by paying attention to your body’s response (i.e. “gut reaction”) as you read through them. You may find that you already do many of these things so the key now is to do them mindfully. (Helpful hint: Try them for the first time when you’re relatively calm. The idea is to reinforce and expand any amount of regulation rather than attempt something that feels too hard and end up reinforcing survival mode.)
Daily Practices to Regulate & Calm the Nervous System
1) Ground in all five senses. I lead my clients through an exercise in which I cue them to notice what they see, hear, taste, smell and feel. This orients them to time and place and reminds their bodies they are safe in the room with me. You can do this on your own, too. I have my clients use this video outside of therapy to continue their practice of nervous systems regulation. If this feels too challenging or if you find yourself in a very escalated state, try focusing on just one part of your body that feels good or even neutral. This can be anything from one toe to the tip of your nose. All you’re doing is reminding yourself there is a place on your body that’s okay. When you focus on the comfort rather than discomfort, you’ll be surprised by the shift you begin to notice!
2) Get moving. Any kind of movement or exercise, including dancing, is a great way to connect to your body and remind it of its power, health and strength. Try to stay connected to your experience. Overriding your body’s needs and doing too much will push you back towards dysregulation.
3) Listen to music and better yet, sing along. The reason is complex, but engaging vocal cords can do wonders for discharging emotions.
4) Put pen to paper. Journaling, especially the good old-fashioned way, can help you get acquainted with and reflect on your experiences.
5) Take a shower or bath. Water is grounding. Take the effects up a notch by noticing the water fall onto and off your body. Try integrating aromatherapy. Figure out what smells good to you by experimenting.
6) Breathe mindfully. Breathe in through your nose as you expand your belly and out through the mouth. Focus on the exhale, not the inhale. Contrary to popular belief, the exhale is what slows our heart rate. Focusing on the deep inhale can actually have a dysregulating effect. As you breathe out, trust your body will know when to bring air in again.
7) Cook or bake. These two nurturing tasks can help you focus on a basic human need, and the completion of them can feel so fulfilling.
8) Practice self-compassion by connecting to your emotional experience. Such a therapist thing to say, right? Well, there’s a reason – letting yourself feel your emotions allows them to discharge, and this can have far-reaching effects on regulation. Think about what you do for a kiddo when they’re upset – you acknowledge what they’re feeling before you try to apply logic. This is called co-regulation and you can do the same thing for yourself.
9) Take a nap. Rest may be just what your system needs to regroup. If you’re feeling up to it, see if you can tune into the heaviness of your body on the bed, couch or whatever supportive surface you’re using. This will allow your body to fully let go and lead to even more restorative benefits (you can also add a weighted blanket for more sensory input).
10) Restorative yoga poses. I am no expert on yoga but I do suggest using certain poses like laying on your back with your bottom all the way against the wall so your feet rest on the wall. Shivasana, child’s pose, figure eight/infinity pose and others that are “cooling” can help rest the body and elicit a parasympathetic nervous system response.
11) Connect to nature. Walk barefoot on the grass or sand, put your feet in a nearby body of water, notice the animals, plants and trees around you – really notice and even name them aloud or in your mind.
12) Listen to relaxing sounds. I have a playlist of ambient sound that I use as needed. My favorite is waves crashing onto a beach and rain falling. Soothing noises like this can be helpful when it’s hard to connect to your body. Engaging your auditory system provides a nice anchor.
13) Sunbathe! Good old vitamin D can most certainly aid in restoring vibrancy and positivity.
14) Pursue social interaction. There is no better way to regulate than by connecting with another safe person.
15) Do something creative, whether coloring, drawing, painting, molding or crafting. This is a great way to connect to yourself and discharge survival mode energy.
16) Hang with your pet. Spending time with them can be incredibly grounding. Intensify the grounding effect by engaging as many senses as you can. Notice how their fur feels on your hands, notice their color, the sound of their breathing, how they smell, how they feel if they are sitting on your lap, etc.
17) Do a puzzle or another game that supports problem-solving. Engaging your logical brain will in and of itself create space for more connection.
18) Watch comedy or light-hearted, feel-good shows. It’s important to screen out overwhelming and negative news. This is good practice when it comes to social media, too. Unfriend or unfollow people that seem to be stuck in survival mode. They will only serve to remind your system it’s not safe.
19) Visualization. Imagine being in a place that brings you comfort. For me, it’s sitting on the shore of the beach with my toes in the sand and my family nearby (but not close enough to disrupt my peace). Use ambient noise to intensify the visualization. You can find a lot of these on YouTube! As you begin to settle in, notice how your body feels. Don’t worry if your mind wanders. Just notice it is and gently bring yourself back.
20) Eat! You read that right. What’s more nurturing than a delicious meal, especially one that nourishes your body? It’s also okay to indulge. Just try to stay present while doing so. We run into problems when we disconnect and numb ourselves with food. Notice every bite as it goes into your mouth, notice the texture, the taste, and try to notice when you’ve had enough.
21) Pursue therapy. Especially if all of these suggestions feel like a challenge or if you know you’re experiencing symptoms of chronic dysregulation. Most therapists are trained to stay regulated so they can act as a regulating source for their clients. If you are interested in my style, seek out a somatic experiencing therapist. They are specifically trained to attune to the autonomic “conversations” in the therapy room, which can help you reconnect to your body and show your nervous system a more regulated way to be.
There are many more options to show your system signs of safety than what I’ve listed here. Do some experimenting! And I can’t say it enough – this is a practice. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were, I wouldn’t have a job…
Thanks for reading, reach out with questions or comments, and best of luck on your journey to nervous system regulation. ~Lauren
*Feel free to contact Lauren with inquires and mental health needs at Secure Base Mental Health LLC.
Thanks for reading everyone! Keep nurturing the mind/body connection through daily grounding practices and self care for your mental health!
Yours in health and wellness,