I have felt overwhelmed, inundated, and swamped by the all-consuming events that are happening in the world at this moment. As a result, I have experienced deep fatigue – mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical fatigue. My analytic mind teeters between catastrophic interpretation of the symptoms (cancer, post-COVID, infection) and calming, normalizing explanations of the same (stress response, my actual age, my low levels of stamina due to recent surgeries). Somewhere in the middle lies the explanation that brings me back to this moment and allows my neurological response to return to baseline. That explanation, however, changes daily.
One of the most effective interventions if you are feeling panicked and experiencing high levels of anxiety is to look around your present environment and find five different objects. Several versions of this task exist – find five colors, five textures, five of something. The psychological principle here is that when you give your mind something to do, it will disengage from the spinning wheel of “What if?” terror-provoking thinking and return to the here-and-now. Unless you are under attack, most likely your here-and-now is pretty calm.
Our fight-flight-freeze emergency response system is hardwired into our DNA. It is an essential survival mechanism that most of us are aware of only in extraordinary circumstances. It works in an on/off mode. When danger is perceived, the system turns on (stress response). What this means is your body produces increased amounts of adrenalin, norepinephrine, and dopamine (there are other neurotransmitters, but these are the big three). What you experience is a racing heart, dry mouth, shortness of breath and cold hands and feet. You may also have an “out of body” experience where you find yourself in observation mode, somehow detached from your body and the events going on. Your brain interprets all these sensations and continues to produce the neurotransmitters. The system was designed to manage brief exposure to threatening events (20 minutes every couple of months). Trouble is, our systems have become overloaded and are running on empty because of the continuous perception of threat that we are now living under.
When danger has passed, the system was designed to turn off (relaxation response). The only way to discharge excess amounts of the “on” neurotransmitters is to pee, poop, throw-up, sweat or cry. In the good old days, after you had been chased by a saber-toothed tiger and made it safely back to your cave, you would throw up, clean yourself up, and sleep for several hours until your body had re-set itself.
We don’t do that anymore. Nowadays, we use one of the most powerful tricks of our minds – denial – and just pretend that nothing bad is happening. Oh, and we numb out so that we can ignore the warning signals flashing through our body. We do this by drinking, using weed, eating too much, having mindless sex, binge watching TV, and/or playing on the computer. These strategies result in a temporary suspension of feeling, but have long-term consequences on our bodies, minds, and capacity for managing stress.
All of this is preparatory to the point I am making in this blog. Threat is perceived. Depending on what you see, you will react at a physiologic level that is hard-wired. If you perceive threat in the color of someone’s skin, by the clothing they are wearing, the intensity of their voice and the words they are using, then your body will respond to that threat automatically and without questioning.
Perception is everything. What do you see? How did you learn to see those things? I remember when I was first learning to paddle down rivers. My instructor would have us practice entering and leaving an eddy. There is something called an eddy line that if you paddle on rivers enough, you can see easily. But I never had the experience, and it took me a while to learn to see those eddy lines.
If you grew up in an environment where you never saw a person of color, or someone in full drag, or a transperson, or a person who was shorter, taller, oddly shaped, or sounded funny, all these characteristics would be perceived as “other” and if you responded to that initial explosion of neurotransmitters and did not successfully return to a calm state, you would develop theories and belief systems about the “other” being a threat and develop sets of behaviors and actions that confirmed what you were feeling in response to the perceived threat until, amazingly, it becomes a way of life that you never question. Until something changes.
SARS-CoVid-19, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, and months of sheltering in place have put our threat response systems into overdrive. Depending on what you see, after the murder of George Floyd there were either riots or protests. There were looters or marchers. There were threats to persons and property by ANTIFA bravely defended by uniformed officers or there were moments of rage and frustration expressed through violent means that had been suppressed for decades. Depending on what you see or don’t see, COVID is everywhere, on packages, in the air, on our hands, and on every surface we come into contact with. Depending on what you see, you are either alone in this world, unable to connect with others in meaningful ways, or enjoying a break from the hustle and bustle of the world.
We are all being asked to check our vision. What do you see? How have you been taught to see? What can change that perception? Because we are hard-wired to perceive “other” as a threat, we need to get in touch with our feeling body instead of our thinking mind. Talking about changing perceptions is very different than experiencing your perceptions being changed. We need both.
5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 Exercise
Take a moment to look around you right now. Take a breath. Find five things in your surroundings that you look at every day, but see them differently. Look for details. Look for space around (or behind or next to) the objects. See these five things in a new way. Take another breath. Now seek out and actually touch four objects. Experience them in a different way. Weight, texture, balance point, hot/cold, smooth/rough. Really pay attention to these sensations. Take another breath. Now listen. Identify three sounds in your environment. Really listen to each of these sounds. Identify their source, their loudness or softness, how they change when you move your head from side to side. Close your eyes and listen to those sounds again. Pay attention to how they changed with your eyes open and with them closed. Take another breath. Now find two different smells in your space (maybe your clothing, a book, flowers, or something else). Inhale those smells. Notice how they impact your body. Notice if they linger. Notice if you are repelled by the smell. Take another breath. Finally, taste one thing. What are the qualities? Bitter, sweet, salty, sour?
If you have taken the time to do each of these in succession, you will probably find that you are feeling a bit calmer and maybe more relaxed. Most likely you will be much more alert. This calm, resting state is challenging to find these days. But we should be seeking it out every day.