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How to manage a crisis - Part II (Self-Regulation)

Updated: May 27, 2020

The coronavirus crisis is ongoing and ever-changing.

Part I of this blog series focused on the basics - setting up a routine while staying at home, the importance of connecting with others, and how to take care of yourself. So now, two months later, what else can we do to manage the stress and fear associated with the trauma we continue to live?

Many of us are still experiencing high levels of fear. Why is that?

As humans, we have a built-in threat defense system that helps keep us safe. Our minds and bodies are constantly working together to protect us. The normal protection sequence is to first sense the threat, evaluate it, and act. The way we "act" is either through fighting (sticking around to fight the threat off) or fleeing (getting away from the threat). The way in which we react depends on what we're capable of in the moment, as well as our past reactions to threat which may have become patterns. For people with a history of trauma, especially childhood trauma, this may be more difficult to navigate.

The threat we are now experiencing is in some ways invisible while at the same time ever-present. This not knowing what exactly the threat is, where it may come from, and when it might affect us is leading to another common reaction - shutdown and freeze. Because we can't easily evaluate the threat, we are not sure how to react to it. Many people are experiencing things such as exhaustion, anxiety, aggression, cognitive decline (difficult concentrating), staying at home in fear, and constantly scanning the world for threat (hypervigilance). Many of these reactions come from a place of powerless and fear.

So, what can we do? Self-regulation may be the key.

To regain a sense of regulation and calm, we can:

  • Recognize our feelings, especially fear. If we deny our feelings, they do not just go away, and actually can often become stronger. By recognizing a feeling, we embrace it as part of our experience and then can decide what we want to do with it.

  • Feel our bodies. Emotions are often linked with physical sensations. In fact, many people first feel something in their bodies before recognizing an emotion. For example, a headache may signal that you're overworked and stressed. Listen to your body. Is it perhaps communicating something important to you?

  • Orient towards safety. Can you notice where you are right now? What do you see? What sounds do you hear? Is there a smell or taste that you're experiencing? What can you touch? Get connected with your environment and see how you feel in it. Could you do something to make yourself more comfortable? What might increase a feeling of safety?

  • Go deeper, if possible. Notice any feelings of tension or unease (fear, stress, chest tightness) as well as the pleasant feelings (warmth, calm, lightness, love). Notice both and shift between the two, as it feels good for you. Feel free to spend a longer time with the pleasant feelings.

  • Connect with others. We can switch our focus from social distancing to physical distancing - meaning that we can still connect with others while maintaining a safe physical distance. We are social animals and need each other for co-regulation. This means that the more regulated others are, the more regulated we are, and vice-versa. We need to connect to feel safe, so continue to do this regularly. Make sure to get plenty of eye contact.

Since social engagement is so important, here are a few tips for connecting with others:

  • Regularly connect with people socially, either online (preferably with video) or in real life (as your country's laws & suggestions allow, as well as your own preferences)

  • Ask yourself where your boundaries are. Are you ok with seeing friends in person? How many at a time? With how much distance? Is touching ok? With who and under what circumstances? Are you ready to go to the hairdresser, restaurant, or therapist's office?

  • When you're in public, look people in the eyes. This small act can give us a sense of safety and connection.

  • Realize we're all suffering (and therefore all connected)

  • If you want more physical distance, ask for it in a socially engaging way. This may mean smiling at the person behind us in the grocery line, while saying something like "Hi there. I know this time is difficult, but I'm wondering if you would mind keeping a bit more distance?". This not only recognizes our collective suffering, but also respects our needs for boundaries and safety.

  • If you're a parent, regulating yourself will help to regulate your kids. It will also allow you to be more available to them, which they may be needing more of right now.

For more tips and information, check out this video from Bessel van der Kolk, a Dutch psychiatrist, who gives some more advice on caring for yourself during this time as well as this post from the Somatic Experiencing Institute, with a step-by-step method for self-calming during crisis.

If you would like more support, check out the rest of my website and, if you're interested in therapy, make an appointment.

*Many of these ideas are in line with the Somatic Experiencing approach. More specifically, ideas by Dr. Peter Levine during the webinar "Dealing with times of Turbulence and Fear: Somatic Experiencing and COVID-19", as well as the S.E. SCOPE exercise, mentioned above.

Art by: Ertan Atay

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