By Kumkum Pareek Malik
BOSTON—Is social distancing getting to you? If yes, don’t worry. It is normal. As the social distancing period stretches, you may feel different than your usual self. There are several ways to rebalance. Let’s first understand what’s happening, and then let’s fix it.
Feeling vague dread? Chest tight? Irritable? Fearful?
It’s just your Autonomic Nervous System going into “all is not well” mode. We are geared to recognize a lack of safety. You are not going crazy, and there is nothing wrong with you. It’s a strange time, isn’t it?
Those symptoms are our survival system at work. It recognizes danger, and is programmed for flight or fight. Think early humans, think danger from wild animals, think…run for your life, or stay and fight. It’s an automatic response, meant to keep us safe.
Due to evolutionary changes, this flight or fight response is triggered today whenever we feel psychologically unsafe. And the pandemic is triggering us in countless ways, from the threat of imaginary shortages to a tremendous financial uncertainty, to that deep fear of physical vulnerability and lack of control.
Please remember, this triggering is an evolutionary response, meant to trigger action. But now, we cannot take the evolutionary response of flight or fight. There is nowhere to run, and no one to fight.
Your Autonomic Netvous System does not understand that. All it registers is…there is danger, take action. And as long as the danger persists, it will keep on and on and on….
We need to deactivate it. Downshift it.
If you have ways that work for you, great. If not, remember we need psychological tools too…masks and protection of a different kind.
Here is a simple 3-step process:
- Notice that you are triggered. You might want to try just noticing; withhold judgement if you can. Try to be gentle with your Autonomic Nervous System. It’s just doing its job. There is NO evidence of personal shortcoming.
- Take slow deep breaths. Make the exhale longer than the inhale. Do this for as little as three breaths, or for as long as you like. No side effect except calmness, regardless of overdosing on it.
- Do something that gives you joy…hum a song you used to when you were a kid, go look at pictures of your parents, remember that silly little roadside dhaba where you ate chole bhature? Savor that memory. Text a friend…just say…hey, how are you?
Try to build a daily routine…even a few minutes dedicated to calm joy is terrific. It’s called the Theory of Incompatible Responses in psychology. You cannot feel dread, fear and tension while also feeling calm and joyous. It’s just not possible.
Kick your nervous system into calmness by the 3-step practice above. And remember…your mind is a many splendored thing. Use it to help you.
(Kumkum Pareek Malik (Ph.D.) is a Senior Psychologist specializing in Mind Body Medicine and also Women’s Health. She received her education at Lady Shri Ram College, The Harvard Graduate School of Education and Harvard Medical School.)