Why am I so scared? How COVID-19 unseats us and how to regain center

Why am I so scared? How COVID-19 unseats us and how to regain center

Here is a great blog about why we feel so much fear and anxiety in the COVID 19 times and what to do with it by my friend and skilled Boulder Therapist Emily Isaacs.

The waters are choppy these days.  What sort of boat are you sailing in?

As a whole society we have sailed into uncharted waters – a world where we are trying to remain protected from an ambiguous menace, have access to a limitless opportunities to take in media designed to spike the fight-or-flight wing of our nervous system, all with highly limited in person, face to face social support.

It’s a recipe for waking up each day feeling very, very anxious and out of control.

Let’s break this down to understand how these factors come together to cause such nervous system dysregulation.

1. The ambiguous menace. COVID-19: it is invisible, yet highly contagious.  Some people do not even show symptoms, and others – even young people – end up on ventilators in the hospital.  I didn’t wipe down the bread bag, but now it is in the refrigerator with everything else – did the cold air kill the germs or are they jumping onto other food?  (I truly did worry about this).

Ambiguous threats trigger our fight-or-flight system by the very nature of being ambiguous.  We lack clear information and so our brains become hyper-vigilant, constantly seeking out additional information to resolve the ambiguity.  We are biologically wired to this.

2. Your brain on media.  Let’s also remember that the news is designed to grab our attention so we engage with it.  A very easy way to grab our brain’s attention is through fear.  Take a moment to just listen to a newscaster’s voice without the content: tense, quick, serious.  Then we have social media – which is, in many ways, a huge resource during these times of limited in-person contact.

But social media comes with a price – it can disrupt sleep, encourage comparison to others, shorten our attention span, and keep our nervous system on overdrive (ever thought your phone was vibrating but it wasn’t?  That’s actually a real phenomenon and a sign of hypervigilance).

3.  Forgoing face-to-face contact.  Here’s the real doozie, and one that I try to remedy during therapy sessions.  Face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact is enormously regulating for us human beings.  We’re apes.  We are social beings that thrive on social interaction and our nervous systems regulate with each other.

​We can be totally jacked up and freaked out and if we have a friend or partner (or even a checker at the grocery store!) that is calm and reassuring, even a brief face-to-face interaction can soothe us.  A hug is even better.  And these days, the checker at the grocery store is suddenly an ambiguous threat.

Let’s go back to the boat metaphor.  We’re all sailing in choppy waters these days; we can’t control that.  But we do have a choice about what sort of boat we sail in.  The boat is the state of our internal being – our consciousness and how we choose to direct it.

Here are three simple practices to explore while navigating the world this week:

1. Name it to tame it.  Did you open up your Facebook feed and suddenly become tense and hyper-focused on scanning through every scary article?  Did you catch yourself skimming every news article searching for a clear answer?  Great!  You are very, very human.  It actually calms your brain to name an experience – it is a kind of compartmentalizing that can help bring awareness and even control to a behavior.  Simply NOTICE the behavior and give it a name in your mind.  “Using Facebook.  Heart rate going up.”

2. Shift attention.  Did you name it to tame it?  Awesome!  Since you are now aware of what you are doing, you have a chance to change your behavior.  If you have noticed your muscles getting tight, your heart rate going up, your breath getting shallow – it is time to redirect your attention.  Feel your feet on the floor.  Take a deep breath.  Look at a photo of a loved one, at a favorite plant, out the window at the sky.

3. Move your body.  After our fight-or-flight nervous system has been activated, our bodies need a reset.  We have a biological need to know that the threat has passed and we can now move on to more peaceful business.  Otherwise, we remain in a hyper-aroused state that is exhausting in a multitude of ways.  Moving our bodies gives us this much-needed reset.  So: turn on some music and DANCE.  Shake out every limb.  Use your hands to vigorously brush off your arms, legs, torso, back.  Look silly – it will help move the nervous energy.

Above all – remain compassionate to yourself.  This experience is unlike anything any of us have ever gone through together.  We’re all doing the best we can – including me.  Including you.

Why do therapy during the Coronavirus pandemic?

The go to mentality in crisis is a scarcity mentality. It makes sense. When we feel threatened, we go into our fight or flight brain and protect ourselves and our loved ones. This is a great standard human feature that has gone a long way in keeping us going as a species. The big difference in the coronavirus pandemic is that it’s looking like it will be a long haul. At least weeks, if not months of interrupted lives and scary realities. The fight or flight feature of our brain was only designed to be employed for minutes to hours.

After we move beyond the minutes or hours stages we see it taking a huge toll on our ability to think, our physical health and especially our mental health. The quality of our experience shows a diminishing return that is compounded over time when we are living in fight or flight or too long. For some people they will even begin to experience the prolonged stress as a trauma.

So why would therapy be helpful during the pandemic? Two reasons:

1. Therapy done well, moves us out of our fight or flight brain in a meaningful way. Even in those places that we keep getting stuck on our own, a quality counselor will help us find the way out of the fight or flight. In therapy we get ways to stay out of fight or flight and even avoid it in the future. Good counseling offers skills that transfer outside of the session, so that we can spend more time in our higher brain and have a greater ability to feel relief on our own when we do get really stressed or afraid outside of the session.

2. Additionally, if you are not especially panicked in these times, there is something else that is ripe here and that is major changes. Many things are different right now and in these times of forced change we get to see things in new ways. We have experiences we wouldn’t have picked on our own. Even if we don’t like the change, it’s quality information to make use of if we choose to. This is an awesome time to get yourself into therapy and make the most of the opportunity that we are living out. If we have to go through it anyway, why not juice it for all it’s worth?

How to Handle Grief and Loss from Social Distancing During COVID

Social distancing by definition means a lot of loss and with loss we have grief. When we stay away from the life we’ve made, we can lose out on a lot of what we value in our lives. We may lose out on relationships, income, childcare, adventures, social support, opportunities to expand our lives or goals, the list goes on and on. Think of all the things that got cancelled recently.

In this pandemic we also don’t know what will happen, so we are losing out on our sense of stability and control. For many of us, we have lost some very important parts of our life and even our identity.

How to do loss and grief the best we can:

  1. First, be kind. Be gentle. Our minds tend to go on the fritz and either stop thinking or over think when we are sad or overwhelmed. Notice if you have some thinking you could let go of, even if it’s only for a few minutes. WE need rest from the chronic vigilance for our physical and mental health.

Can you notice what your thoughts are saying? Wherever possible choose helpful thoughts. Intentionally taking time to slow down can be so kind to ourselves. It is easier to think helpful thoughts and make helpful choices when our minds are slowed down. Try breathing meditations, slow walks, art, play and music. All of these can be super powers for health.

  1. Allow. You should be upset, at least some. Nothing is going wrong by you feeling upset. It’s a hard situation and you’re having hard feelings. It makes sense. It is not comfortable to be upset and most of us don’t like it, but it’s still a healthy, right thing. Give yourself the gift of feeling. You may not only be sad. Grief can incite anger, joy, sadness, fear or whatever it is that you’re feeling.

  2. Don’t go at it alone. You can reach out to one person, or everyone you know on social media. Reach out to your therapist or your parents, reach out to whoever, but reach out. Nearly everything is harder when we keep it in our heads. Decide who you can share with and do that.

  3. Do something different. Can you remember something you used to like to do? Maybe paint, write poems or do push ups. When the old way of doing things falls apart and we have made room for our feelings and found support the next step is creating what will be next way of being. If you have lost the old life, then there is or will be, space to make something new. What would you like to make in your empty space?

 

This cycle repeats over and over through loss and is how we stay with ourselves and have some threads of hope to grasp as we find our way When we lose our way, we have made connections with people who will remind us of who we are so we can get back to our way.

If you are reading this with a more concrete loss to the pandemic, a loss of a loved one or your health, please know many of the steps are the same,but that is a much more profound kind of loss. When you are ready, I hope you will find your way to an amazing therapist. Until then. Do the steps above and if you feel too hopeless keep yourself safe by going to an emergency room, calling 911 or 1-800-273-8255.

Anxiety and the coronavirus: 3 tips for a better pandemic

If you weren’t already anxious, it seems like maybe the coronavirus could’ve given you a solid push into the anxiety department of your life. Of course we can’t change that the virus is here nor can we change that the toilet paper is not here, but there are a few things that we could do that might help us get through this in a more calm way. From a calmer place we have more ability to make hard choices if need be and if that’s not what happens then we will be more able to enjoy what may be a forced sabbatical for some people.

Here are three easy things you can do to make the coronavirus era we’re in less stressful and help reduce your anxiety:

  1. Choose your company and your conversations wisely. If the conversation you have seems to be exciting you in a way that doesn’t feel good then that might be a conversation or a person that isn’t going to benefit you to spend time with. Sometimes we see aspects of people we love and respect the very most when things like this happen that just means this is not the time we’re gonna spend time with them and we need to look for other people to get us through.

  2. Don’t isolate yourself. We know that when we isolate anxiety and depression and cognitive ruminations get much worse. Although there is a recommendation for social distancing because it is 2020 we have all kinds of options for human connection that don’t involve having to be in the same room. If we find ourselves poised to create social distancing we would do well to bridge the gap with social media and virtual platform so that we can still have the people we love and care about in our lives.

  3. Limit the conversations & media that you take in about Covid19. Get the information that is important for being informed and then stop. Use your attention for things that make you feel thankful, playful, connected or things that make you laugh. These four things that I’ve mentioned are very specific and are backed by research to help reduce your stress and also our link to being healthier physically. Stress has the inverse affect. Protect yourself- not just from germs but from excessive fear.

And as always if you need more help get more help. North Boulder Counseling has online counseling that means you can speak to a very well-qualified effective therapist and is not the usual bargain online counseling.

Together we can do what none of us can do alone.

How to challenge anxious thoughts: guest blog by Christy Pennison

Do you ever experience anxious thoughts you can’t escape? You are not alone. Many times we can get wrapped up in our head with our thoughts spinning out of control. And, instead of trying to find a way out or forward, we often dig down deeper into a hole of no return.

When you find yourself struggling with anxious thoughts, go back to your ABCs and take a moment to reflect about your situation before you react.

Attention
Notice what your mind is saying. The first step to being able to figure out everything that’s going on is to just start by noticing what you are actually thinking. Write your thoughts down. Many times when our lives get turned upside down or we are anxious about something our brain is thinking all kinds of things. It’s important to figure out and be aware of what it is saying.

Believe
You don’t have to believe everything you think. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true or correct.

Challenge
Question what you’re thinking. Consider other perspectives. Sometimes you need to ask yourself: how do I know this is true? Is there evidence against this thought? Is this a fact or opinion? What would I say to someone else who was thinking this? What is the bigger picture? Challenging your anxious thoughts helps you come to a more balanced way of looking at a situation.

Discount
Let unhelpful thoughts go. Unhelpful thoughts are just that, unhelpful. And many times we let them hang around for far too long. So if it’s not helping you move forward to a solution, let it go.

Explore
Choose the best response. Reflecting on what and how you are thinking about something going on in your life will help you discover the best way to respond and move forward.

When dealing with anxious thoughts, the only way forward is through. By tackling your anxious thoughts one at a time, you can begin to help shift your mindset and develop a more balanced way of thinking about your situation.

Christy Pennison, LPC-S, is a board-certified professional counselor and owner of Be Inspired Counseling & Consulting. She provides counseling in Alexandria, LA, and specializes in working with children and adolescents through various mental, emotional, and behavioral challenges. She is passionate about inspiring hope through counseling services to help individuals move forward and live fully.

 

4 SIGNS ITS TIME TO REDUCE STRESS

Signs your stress is too high:

1. Feeling stress during things that would normally bring you joy.
What it may mean:
When stress is very high or goes on for too long, it can create anxiety, which is more complex and pervasive than stress. Anxiety begins to color our experience more thoroughly than stress and makes it difficult to see what is real or remember our highest values.

2. Finding yourself engaging less socially or getting less value from previously fulfilling relationships.
What it may mean:
Quality relationships and social engagements are a marker of a full and open life. Isolation can come from stress, anxiety and depression. Isolation can diminish our sense of worthiness and increase negative self talk without people we care about to distract us and support us.

3. Generalized hopelessness. If you hear yourself being generally negative and or thinking hopeless thoughts.
What is may mean:
Stress can also initiate depression. Stress over time can change how our brains process experiences that we may normally tolerate or even find engaging.

4. Changes in how you present and care for yourself and your space. If you find your hygiene, exercise, self care routines or care for your personal spaces are dwindling or inversely, you are becoming hyper vigilant about how you present yourself, you may be being impacted by your stress.
What it may mean:
It may be an externalized sign of overwhelm and a sign of diminished sense of competence and well being. To either let go of care routines or to become hyper vigilant in your appearances is a sign to re-assess.

3 STEPS TO SUSTAINED PASSION IN YOUR LONGTERM RELATIONSHIP.

There are three things that are key to maintaining desire and fire in a longterm relationship.

1. Each person in the relationship is responsible for continuing to make themselves feel sexy. That means they may work out, eat well, engage in a certain hobby, continue to be curious in their work or spend time with friends, whatever it is that makes them feel confident, attractive and sexy in and of themselves. Each person needs to feel that they are sexually attractive. We usually think of it as our partners responsibility to attract us, but it is far more effective for each of us to care for our own sexuality and the confidence that we are desirable.

2. Maintaining novelty in the relationship. This is generally going to be small things over the long-term.
It could be going on a long weekend vacation or a new restaurant. New events and experiences together.
AND
​It also involves talking to your partner like they are new person sometimes. Asking about subtle parts of their life that you would ask about if you were on a date, rather than assuming that you know what’s going on in their lives. Asking about their dreams, hopes and fears, or what has been especially satisfying lately can refresh your curiosity and interest in them. It shows them that you not only care, but that you expect that they are growing and changing in ways you want to know about. This helps you see each other with fresh eyes and acknowledge how each of you is always changing and actually evolving into a new version of yourselves. It normalizes growth and change in the relationship, which makes room for each person to be most alive, engaging and therefore attractive.

3. Go toward disagreements. When there is conflict in the relationship, it is essential that it is worked through immediately, so that no one holds onto things. Resentment is the ultimate killer of desire and excitement. The two preceding points will do nothing if this one has not been attended to.

Finally, while we must remember we are in this for the long run. Attending to what we want right now even if it is in a small way, assures that desire isn’t entirely prolonged and gives us a sense of hope, anticipation and motivation for creating those bigger servings of passion that fires our desires and attraction toward each other.

One thing to know WHEN YOU NO LONGER RECOGNIZE YOURSELF.

Sometimes after some loss, loss of a loved one, loss of a dream, loss of a way of living, we find ourselves looking in the mirror and the person looking back looks like us, but doesn’t feel like us. Times when we do the things we always do and hear our voice and see our actions knowing them as our own, but they still feel empty, void of us. The alive self in us is missing and what remains is pain, confusion and hope that often feels less and less every day.

What is so haunting about this is that we can remember ourselves, we know that we were whole in the past, that this is not normal and it does not feel okay. There is such a deep ache and fear beneath these times that it often seems as if they should not be happening, like something is wrong and that we are probably the one that made it go wrong.

This idea that this ‘should’ not be happening is especially painful and this is important…this is the thing to hold onto; the truth is it ‘should’ be happening.

Think of it like this. We are a boat in the ocean and the chaos and pain is a storm. Storms ‘should’ happen, they should be intense sometimes, especially when big changes in weather have happened. No one would say that a storm in the ocean shouldn’t be happening or that the boat is failing by not stopping the storm. It is a cheesy metaphor, but is not inaccurate. We do not get to control when the storm starts, ends or how it goes. We just bounce and maybe even thrash about until it is done.

So basically, if it ‘should’ be happening, then the awful internal story about how we’re a failure for being a mess for so long is not true. If thinking we are failing is not true and it hurts us to think it, we could maybe stop saying that to ourselves.

When we find ourselves saying ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me” or “I don’t know how to make it stop”, we could note that these are just scary facts of a reality, that we are in fact scared and sad, but that we are not failing.

In reality, something we do not like and that feels sad and scary if happening, that is not the same as failing at life. Finally, (warning this may make you want to smack someone) what if some things that are awful feeling are just the right things, what if the things that feel bad are not a sign something is wrong.

Instead, maybe some of the important things in life just hurt and are scary…then nothing is wrong. Then we settle in and look for quality people and places to hold us while we weather the storm, maybe that is all there is to be done. Maybe it would be the slightest bit easier if we stop pretending we have a choice..

May we find the people and places that help you weather our storms.

*NOTE: these times can be so devastating and painful that folks may not want to live through them. If this is genuinely where you or a loved one are at, it’s time to get help from a professional.

Number one thing to do when you’re going through hell.

Sometimes it’s our turn to go through hell. Whatever version of it you are going through, this will help. Fair advertising, there is no way out all together. You’ve got to go through. But, if you have to go through anyway, you may as well have one thing to focus on, one thing to be sure of.

The thing to do; Find people who love you. I’m serious. People who really love you and love you well. People who aren’t freaked out by you freaking out and who don’t need you to be okay.

This can take a bit. Especially if you haven’t been through hell before so you haven’t had to test your loved ones in this way. Be as open as you can, you may be surprised who the stand out people are in this category.

Then; let them help you. By help I mean, let them be near you, do things for you that you don’t want to do, and listen to you or be quiet with you. Drop your baggage about ‘not being a burden’ and just take all the time and care people will give you.

Being alone too much in the darkness of hell can really shake your sanity and makes hell so much more painful. You will need some alone time as you go through the very soul shaking darkest bits, but in between company (however crappy company you are to others) is important for your sanity and to feel loved.

Know it will be different eventually. Not soon enough and not tied up all pretty like a movie, but simply as a facet of time, eventually things will be change. When they are different and you can feel your self again, you will be glad that you didn’t go it all alone. This hell you are going through, will change your life forever. How lovely to let some people come through it with you and even better that they would.

How to support someone who is grieving.

Grief is a necessary part of living a full life. The best way to support someone who is grieving is to appreciate that their grief is part of having loved and invested ourselves in the world and in people. We don’t have grief if we didn’t care.
Grief is complex and can take a long time to move through, far longer then the time we tend to support people in our culture. So first off, be patient. In some cases it can be years of heart ache, particularly with loss of a partner or family member.
For the person going through it, there is a loss of identity and orientation to the world that is both painful and confusing. In the acute stages ,it can be hard for the person to think clearly, they may feel numb, distant or just not like themselves. Allowing people to be how they are and not making efforts to make them feel ‘better’ but rather making every effort to listen when they want to talk and not to push it when they don’t is ideal.
You are trying to be there for them, so ask what they want. Don’t make assumptions. You have to ask yourself what you are comfortable and capable with in terms of supporting this person in their grief.
Do you feel comfortable listening to and appreciating their difficult emotions (pain, anger, fear, etc) without changing them? Or are you better suited to make food and run errands for them or to take them to a movie? Be honest with yourself. If you are dying to hear how they feel and they don’t want to talk, are you able to set your needs aside and just be with them however they ask you to be?
The biggest thing about other people’s big life experiences is that they tend to make us feel a lot of things too. So if we have certain things we want to feel or don’t want to feel, we may not be able to make room for whatever they need.
So first, get clear with yourself about what your own comfort and needs are around their experience. If their experience is upsetting you, you could be looking for support for yourself rather then looking to support them.

Most of all be patient with the person and your relationship with them. They may be grumpy, weepy or distant. They may seem like themselves when it seems they should be upset. There is no precise formula. Being sincere is always the best bet, which also means if how you are is normally not very connecting or is goofy, that’s likely your best bet now.

One of the tough tings about grief is that is can be isolating because people don’t know what to say or how to be, so they avoid you or are super weird. Just be there and be yourself, your willingness to do that in the hard times means more than thinking of the right thing to say.

On that topic, what should you say? Ask if they want to talk about it in a direct way when its a good to talk. If they don’t, ask if they want to talk about something else. If they choose to connect with anyone on in nearly any way, that is success. You may not talk at all about ‘the elephant in the room’ but if you are there with that person doing what they like, you are helping.

Most of all, remember they are in charge of their grief, they are the only ones who can go through it. Trust them.