The worldwide pandemic itself is certainly reason enough to fire up our internal alarm bells, and certainly can and should motivate
taking reasonable actions to protect ourselves, our loved ones, neighbors, friends, and even strangers (friends we have not yet met).
Those alarm bells can fire up at any given moment for people who have anxiety disorders, even when safe and secure in a clean and sanitized area. They are tense, on edge, stressed out, can’t sleep, and constantly imagine the worst possible scenarios.
But for people who have suffered early life and/or multiple traumas those alarms can ring loud and long, can suddenly flare up
like a bonfire. And very often anxiety and trauma go hand in hand.
Why indeed. Through aeons of evolution nature fashioned resilient capacities in us to meet challenges, to adapt to circumstances. We see
a threat; we run, or fight, or freeze in place if that’s the only choice. And when the threat is over, when we’ve outrun the tiger or
fought off the predator or fooled the bear into leaving, the beating heart returns to its steady, slow rhythm.
Except when it doesn’t. Our animal cousins do not have stress problems we humans do. When the threat is over, life returns to normal. Those resilient capacities fashioned by evolution seem to give us heartburn, sleepless nights, high blood pressure, panic
attacks. What’s up with that?
Think of the small child, the magical thinking child, sound asleep, Bang! awakens from a nightmare about a monster in the closet or under the bed. Fight/flight/freeze systems fire up, the heart pounds, the child screams…. The parent swiftly arrives and opens the closet door or shines the flashlight under the bed and helps the child down to inspect the empty space. The child is safe, calms down, is soothed.
Now think about what happens if a passed-out, drunk parent doesn’t arrive to soothe the child. Or consider the nightmares of the child has who lives with the monster, an abusive parent. Now multiply those nightmares by acts of abuse that repeat, and repeat, and repeat….
Nature fashioned a structure in the brain, a structure whose job is to remember and warn. It is extremely good at its job. It records threats and experiences that hurt or harm or frighten, and it sounds the alarm when it thinks there is a threat.
But here’s the problem. The alarm system can get stuck in the on position. Anxiety and trauma can both wire themselves into the nervous system. As children we need to learn to regulate our young nervous systems by being protected, by being soothed, and by learning to tell the difference between real and imagined threats.
If we do not learn those things, our brain’s alarm system keeps turning up its sensitivity every time a threat appears.
We can be in our rational mind writing an email, balancing the checkbook, or having a conversation, but if something, even a very tiny whiff of something tripwires the amygdala, an emotional bonfire can erupt.
I once treated a woman who had been raped in her apartment by a group of men wearing ski masks. An unnoticed coat hung on a chair off to
the side. At one point as she turned her head and saw the coat out of the corner of her eye she startled, jumped up and away, screamed, hereyes darted all around the room, her face contorted in terror.
In that exact moment, it wouldn’t have helped to point out reality to her, or tell her she was safe, that there was no threat. Her imagined monster jumped out of the closet and ferociously attacked. The amygdala was in charge.
You can bet that when the amygdala alarm system’s sensitivity is set on a hair trigger, that PTSD eruptions can be set off by aspects of our “new normal” coronavirus. Imagine how people wearing masks must look to her. Or mention of a stealthy, invisible invader intent on overwealming her.
In our “quick-fix” culture we want a technique at the ready, a pill we can take, and of course when we are in great pain that’s understandable. When your wisdom tooth impacts you need a pain pill to tide you over until you get the surgery you really need.
But when both anxiety and trauma have multiple sources and are closely woven into the nervous system, quick fixes don’t really fix. Anxiety and trauma disorders usually takes a course of specialized treatment with someone who gains your trust, who gets what you’re going through, who feels like a good fit.
Trying to apply a self-help technique to a panic attack, a flashback, or any number of dysregulated emotions can be like trying to hold back a tidal wave.
So, with all that said, let me offer you as an example of a technique that a trauma therapist might suggest. This one is a breathing technique. It’s quite safe (we all breathe), there’s really not a wrong way to do it (traumatized people often blame themselves and worry they are doing something wrong — the answer is ‘no’) and if it doesn’t work for you to help calm things down, you can simply stop doing it and see a therapist.
Tools that help people effectively regulate their nervous system tap into the body’s own native, built-in abilities. One of those is as simple and as near as our own breathing.
Neuroscience experts tell us the anxiety response is produced neither by the fight nor the flight survival mechanism, but rather by the freeze mechanism. When anxiety is aroused people often tighten up and constrict the chest area, pull the arms in, squeeze the breathing into the upper chest to the point that oxygen levels decrease.
Kelly McGonigal, PhD, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, developed a technique she calls “heart breathing.” In this technique she says, “I’m going to invite you now to imagine that you could actually breathe in and out of the center of your chest, almost as if you could relocate your nostrils down here and sort of bypass the whole face and throat completely.”
The vivid imagery of this tool certainly intrigues the imagination, but more importantly this practice loosens tight chest muscles, allowing for deeper belly breathing which soothes and calms the nervous system.
In addition, Dr McGonigal’s technique includes an invitation to imagine that as you breathe, you take in courage into your body, and
imagine courage filling your lungs, your chest, and radiating out into the whole body.
You might want to close your eyes and try this out for a couple minutes right now.