Mini-Mindfulness in a Full-Fledged Pandemic Pandemonium: Say What??
This is a crisis. … Isn’t it?
Do NOT beat yourself up right now: You are supposed to be panicking.
Not something you expected to read in a blog article on mindfulness? Fear not: If you aren’t panicking, chances are that all is well. And if you are, you’re still doing the right thing.
Now that I’ve confused you to the point where you are scratching your head, lean in on this:
FIGHT-OR-FLIGHT SERVES A PURPOSE.
What is fight-or-flight?
If you don’t know what fight-or-flight is, go here. The short version = When we are in life-threatening danger, our brains shut down all but the most rudimentary (sometimes known as reptilian) operating system—that amygdala-driven sympathetic autonomic response. After all, if you are about to be attacked by a bear, you need every one of your resources to focus on the 3 simplest choices:
1. Fight the bear to survive (grab that bear spray!).
2. Flee the situation to save your own life (the flight option).
3. Freeze—either to spring out & surprise-attack the bear or to hide in safety.
Let’s face it: If you are preoccupied with concocting the story you’ll tell your friends upon survival or the ways you’ll cook & eat the bear later, you’re sure to lose life & limb. But if you can literally think of nothing but survival, chances are that you’re a lot safer.
What causes fight-or-flight?
In first world countries, we are privileged today to live with a predominate sense of safety. But as I remind all of my workshop audiences on this subject, even if we evolve to the point where we eradicate wars & domestic violence globally, there will still be earthquakes. And bears. Therefore, it is important for our brains to practice this skill set—survival mode—often. And, boy, do they! Here are just a few experiences that can trigger fight-or-flight for many, say, middle class Americans:
• Performance anxiety (there’s something in our reptilian brain that is immediately uncomfortable with being vulnerable in front of a crowd, just in case things turn dicey)
• Asking for a raise or having a difficult conversation (again, vulnerability is threatening)
• Disagreements (feeling adrift in community can be threatening to our survival if no one has our back)
• Feeling dismissed or unheard (see above)
• New situations
Why are new situations so darn frightening, anyway? This is a simple problem of mind-mapping, or the brain’s reticular activating system—the part that recognizes patterns. When we’re in new territory, physically or emotionally, the brain needs to use all its power to focus on mapping the new terrain; identifying the rules; spotting & assessing any potentially threatening patterns. Think of the modern-day cave-person stumbling into a new part of the forest & wondering repeatedly, “Are those the poison berries?” It’s what’s really going on with PTSD when the brain kicks into overdrive to scan situations & circumstances continuously for protection.
The challenge is that our brain does not know the difference between truly threatening situations & “practice runs”—such as the fear of public speaking. Our “survival” (read: paycheck) may be dependent on giving a killer pitch to a prospective marketing client. But our brain may freeze up at the thought of doing poorly & then cause us to actually lose the account/money. How is that helpful?
In fact, it isn’t. And that’s where our higher-level, or decision-making, brain needs to come to our rescue. The challenge is intentionally working to turn it on when it has been turned off by millennia of human conditioning. How can you achieve that?
How do we stop fight-or-flight to think clearly?
In a word (or phrase): Use brain hacks.
I teach a variety of tools to help my Communications Coaching clients cycle out of fight-or-flight by building a bridge to higher-level thinking—the decision-making prefrontal cortex. The simplest of all is one I have blogged about before & shared in numerous articles, both online & in print. I call it The BMT Index™.
This is a simple, self-assessment tool that anyone (yes, even kids) can do at any time. With guidance, even non-verbal toddlers can do this, following along with a trusted adult who can either verbalize or sign the words for their physical & emotional sensations & give voice to the thoughts they are likely thinking. Know that there are tons of great resources to help you do this as a parent, teacher or other child minder. I recommend you start with anything by Dr. Daniel Siegal, M.D. (Here’s a great video on his explanation of fight-or-flight using a hand to model the brain.)
The BMT Index™ has 3 easy steps.
1. What does my body feel?
Note any physical sensations you can sense in your body. These include a pounding heart, sweaty palms, tension or clenching in your fists, chest, teeth, jaw, etc. Some people feel warm, get a headache, have a sour stomach or even feel completely disconnected & disembodied from themselves.
2. What are my moods?
If you noted in Step 1 that your body felt, “nervous,” know that this is the name of a mood—an emotional, not physical feeling. So are mad, glad, sad, scared & all points in between. A lot of comprehensive lists of these emotions exist online for your reference if you aren’t sure what to name your feelings.
3. What are my thoughts?
Even when thoughts come in a barrage like a gush from a faucet, there is usually a prevailing thought or thought pattern that’s clear. To prime the pump, complete this sentence: “It isn’t safe right now to (fill in the blank).”
Taking a moment to assess your internal situation is a great brain hack, because it starts where you are—something your brain can readily do even in a crisis—but allows you to slowly begin to see the situation more objectively. In meditation or other mindful terms, this is real-life practice of the theory, “You are not your thoughts, but rather you are the one observing your thoughts.” And when higher-level thinking is accessed even a little, an interesting thing happens: Brain chemistry changes & the sympathetic response turns parasympathetic. We breathe a little easier as our breathing slows—or starts back up altogether as we notice often that we hold our breath in a crisis; our heart beat, blood pressure & even our digestive system return to a non-stressed state. We may be ravenous after a scare or a fight, interestingly.
There are a number of other really great & really easy tools like this one to stop fight-or-flight in the moment. Some of my favorites include The 5 Senses Grounding Exercise that works with the body & the brain similarly to The BMT Index™; The Work of Byron Katie, which focuses primarily on the T in BMT for thinking; & 3 Conscious Breaths recommended by Thich Nhat Hanh for using the body to calm the mind.
So, should we be panicking right now?
COVID-19 falls under the category of “new situations,” those stranger-danger moments our brains can never forget, at least not if we want to survive. The catch-22 of this is that it is not, for most Americans, a clear & present danger. For those with or protecting others with severely compromised immune systems, the danger isclear, of course. And as paychecks & resource supplies are suspended or in question, the threat level to our personal & familial survival escalates. And in this moment, as I write this post—the day after most schools in my home state of Indiana have been closed for a month or more (or indefinitely—more unknown, “new situations”) & national bans on public congregations beyond 250 people have been announced—our community survival is also in question. And if the whole tribe is impacted, how will we survive?
Reading that above paragraph may cause you serious alarm. Conversely, it may give you a strange sense of peace, simply being able to put into words the vague feeling your brain has been plaguing you with that you have not fully comprehended. It’s a little like using that BMT Index™ for objective observation. (And if you feel more panic, you can use the tricks already noted to help yourself settle down again.)
When we can feel the fear—or panic or anger or alarm or you-name-it—with acceptance, we can marry our valid concerns with healthy decision-making. If we turn really pro at this (through regular practice, of course), we can access fight-or-flight’s opposite, flow focus. (Check out resources from expert Daniel Goleman for more.) Then we can make better decisions, perhaps finding new ways to bond with our neighbors or others in our community to share resources safely; brainstorming novel money-making/-saving endeavors; even embracing the changes in our routine to enjoy extra downtime or family bonding time. (See my companion post to this one on easy ways to practice home learning while schools are closed.)
Your brain needs you to panic. Your soul-survival needs you to thrive.
Panic is unchecked fear. Healthy fear is important. When you panic in a new situation, that’s normal. And when you connect your fear with higher-level thinking, you can safely make the best decisions to keep yourself & your family members safe & to connect in new, wonderful ways to your community.
The BMT Index™ is trademarked by Kealah Parkinson / Coach Kiki / KiKi Productions, Inc. (™)2009–2020.
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