Healing Hypervigilance - part 2
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
This is part two of working with hypervigilance; a common problem right now for many of us, because of the uncertainty of the future of Covid. In part one I compared it to our bodies being on constant high alert, scanning for dangers. In this post I explore how we can practically work with our hypervigilance, rather than fight against it.
When I am in a hypervigilant state, or shutdown/freeze condition, the lying still noticing your thoughts kind of mindfulness doesn’t work for me. My mind and body are far too fidgety and trying to lie still and think calm thoughts is nigh on impossible. I feel bad for not being able to serenely notice thoughts in a non-judgemental way. But when either my anxiety is escalating or I am sinking into shutdown, my hypervigilance is usually triggered by feeling powerless in a situation or relationship. Right now during the Covid-19 pandemic there is plenty of that feeling going on for all of us!
The nose dive of "oh no here I go again and I am powerless to stop it or regain control", can get overwhelming. It feels like no matter how hard you pull on the throttle, you can’t regain control and pull the plane back up again. When in this state, rather than lying still, what works best for me is a proactive strategy which shifts my body, and then my mind, into a calmer state. This gives me a smidgen of control and is enough to help come out of the feeling powerless nose dive, back into seeing hope again.
Current research shows that a somatic body-based approach is powerful. The aim of this therapy is to recognise and release the physical tension left in the body after trauma. Its goal is to explore how tension is held in the body and begin to loosen that grip. Talking therapy is good, but deeply embedded trauma needs an experiential approach. Understanding the neuroscience behind what I am doing helps me to see how I can reveal a pathway to work with my hypervigilant state. With the somatic work we are trying to gently bring our emotional plane back into regulation. It has become deregulated and over aroused. The somatic approach allows us to get out of our head and instead become grounded in our present surroundings.
Here are my top practical tips:
Be Kind to Yourself
When going into the shutdown/freeze state, gradually allow yourself to feel the sensations and not be overwhelmed by them. See them as friendly warning signs telling you what is going on, rather than enemies that need to be shut down and defeated. Learning to accept the sensations helps us expand our window of tolerance for distressing emotions. Being able to allow them to ebb and flow rather than try to shut them out, can be self-soothing. The aim is not to eliminate them but to learn to be empathetic towards them.
Scan your body with your mind and answer these questions. Where am I feeling the distress/tension? In my stomach or chest? Is it a tight feeling or more like butterflies in my stomach? Put your hand over that area and breathe into it as a way of self- soothing/calming the area.
Maybe I am trying to work and need to press on through, but have started to freeze in panic because work feels soooooooooo hard right now. So when I sense that my body is starting to shutdown or tense up into freeze mode, I get out of my chair and move to a different room. I make a cuppa or do some washing- up or put on a load of washing. Anything that actually gets me physically moving. It helps shift the emotional nose dive enough to begin to at least plateau, if not pull up the throttles again.
The world feels like an emotional rollercoaster right now. Use simple rituals to steady yourself: fold laundry, wash the dishes, arrange the cushions, make your bed in the morning, tidy one cupboard, clean a window, plant out autumn plants, etc. Each one is a simple accomplishment worthy of affirmation. They create movement and momentum. As the well known advert says, every little helps. Intentionally feel the softness of the towel or smell the fresh bedding. Use all of your senses to self soothe your brain and remind it that your surroundings are not a threat.
Breathe and stretch
I have recently discovered the power of yoga. I am so aware of the controversy around yoga in Christian circles. But after reading the book The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk I shifted my thinking. Bessel explains how trauma becomes literally stuck in our bodies, at a cellular level. Talking therapy is not enough. His research surprisingly showed that what helped those suffering from PTSD the most was yoga. It is focused on breath work which we now know is very helpful in helping to calm our bodies. Also, the gentle stretching movements release some of the stored tension. There are many types of yoga out there these days, including explicitly Christian yoga, which focuses on these two elements without bringing in any spiritual elements.
One thing lockdown has shown is that walking in green spaces has been a powerful way many people have kept their well being going. It has certainly worked for me.
Sometimes I walk gently. Other times I stomp out my thoughts, anger and angst. Whatever my stride, I try to pray a lot. Not the kind of coherent well structured prayers you hear on a Sunday morning or at a prayer meeting but deep guttural prayers from the heart. I often pray in tongues when I have no idea what I even want to pray, or when I not even sure that God answers prayers that change circumstances. I do believe that the "help my unbelief kind of prayers", which bounce off the ceiling at home, somehow seem to go higher when outside.
This is particularly important for me right now because I am stuck working at home a lot. Getting out of the house allows me to escape out of my head and its swirling thoughts. Trying to set up a routine in a job that currently has no routine has been tough. So to go for a walk is a way to take control and establish a routine. It is also a way to get grounded in my senses, noticing the sights and sounds of nature or the rhythmic motion of passing traffic.
I rarely want to go out the door but I remind myself why I go walking. I now know that 20 minutes into it I will be so glad that I am out there but for those first minutes I grumble in my head and moan about it. The thoughts that I want to leave behind continue to race and swirl until I reach a rhythm with my walking. A state of flow where I can begin to genuinely appreciate the trees and plants and even the weather. Even the rain becomes less of an issue because I know that at the end of my walk sodden I am returning to a warm (ish) dry house.
Dealing with a body that isn’t behaving as you want it to is frustrating and hard work. Give yourself some slack as you try out ways to help manage your intense emotions. Remember, this is emotionally draining work, especially at this emotionally draining time.
If you want to discover more of my top tips for dealing with intense emotions download my free eBook 'Managing Emotions in Turbulent Times' here.
If you have found any of these ideas useful, let me know how in the comments below. Or if you have your own strategies write them too.
If you know anyone who may benefit from my ideas please share.