We've Gotta Have it
Healing the Emotional Wounds of COVID-Times
Two truths and a lie when it comes to how to cope with anxiety...and that of our kids
Several years ago, I visited a brilliant cranial sacral therapist to heal the trapped emotions left over from a broken ankle. I had seen her before so I knew how talented she was at balancing energy within the body (sadly, she went into retirement or I’d share her information with you!).
Lying on a massage table as she touched my head, I felt confused. If her mission was to relieve the pain from a recently healed broken ankle, what was she doing to my brain? After a few minutes, I politely and meekly reminded her that my ankle had broken.
“Yes. I know.” She replied. “But the emotions are trapped here. This is not about your ankle.”
Luckily, my eyes were closed, so she couldn’t see them roll back in my head. I hoped she didn’t have some way of feeling that.
Soon, I started to feel a hot, searing pain in my ankle. I didn’t confess to this. I’ll admit now that I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of knowing that I was feeling the pain precisely at the break while she applied pressure to my temporal lobe. The pain intensified and I was about to express my discomfort when it suddenly shot right out of the bottom of my foot.
Not a moment passed before she asked, “Does that feel better now?”
How did she know? I’d been babbling on and on until suddenly, poof, the pain manifested and disappeared without so much as an acknowledgment from me.
Truth #1: Emotions are found within the body. They can remain trapped unless or until we do something about them.
A broken ankle is one thing, but a broken heart, soul, or sense of self is completely different. I can point to my ankle and show you a scar, tell you a story and move on. It’s much harder to point to the self and say, “I’m broken, my drug abuse is my ongoing scar and my story involves early childhood trauma, which I’d like to forget, thank you.”
We all have a story. And now with the pandemic, we have a plot twist. An unexpected intruder.
This intruder has left us feeling especially scared, lonely, isolated, worried, hungry, anxious, depressed, angry, grief-stricken….The list goes on. We have a lot of feelings swirling around our minds right now, manifesting in our bodies, and adding to our stories. We don’t want them to be trapped, to fester, and to subsequently turn into drug abuse, alcoholism, self-harm, disease (dis-ease), abusive relationships, or worse. And we certainly don’t want this for our children.
A child’s job is to grow up (hopefully in a safe environment), discover their passions, and live a life of meaning, purpose and significance while they work hard, treat their neighbors with kindness, and give back to their communities. This pretty much defines mental health.
So, how do we get there from here, considering the intruder is overstaying its welcome?
One key is to remember our feelings are a result of different parts of our brain interpreting stimuli from the environment and then sending signals to our bodies as a response. For example, you see a snake, you gasp in fear, and your body jumps back. That’s the amygdala reacting. But after a millisecond, the cortex says, that’s just a stick, silly, and you exhale in relief and move on. That exhale is key to shifting the emotions from fear to relief.
The amygdala may keep us alive in an instant when a millisecond matters, but the cortex, albeit a little slower to respond because it fully absorbs all the information, advances our species.
Truth #2: Our successes in life hinge on where and how we live in our brains.
If a child has seen images on TV about COVID, a fear response has likely developed within his or her brain and body (not to mention if that child also lives with domestic violence, in poverty, or has lost a loved one to the virus). When faced with such intense, life-altering emotions, the amygdala fuels the lower, survival and reactive areas of the brain into fight or flight. The cortex, where the higher cognitive functions live, is less accessible when we are stuck low and in pain. Sadly, far too many people live in the lower reactive areas — especially children who are not nurtured well nor kept safe from the repercussions of COVID. It’s like the body is in a constant gasp/fear state. At that point, when we experience fight/flight 24/7, we need help.
The amygdala needs a calming influence to know that things are okay. That calming influence tells fight/flight chemicals to retreat and the sympathetic nervous system to kick in and return us to homeostasis. And that influence does not come in the form of reason, logic or language. That’s why when your child is “freaking out” and you are losing it yourself (because this is a contagious state) and you say, “Calm down! You’re being ridiculous!” it never actually helps. The amygdala responds to the body, not to language or reason. The amygdala needs calming, repetitive, rhythmic sensations to return to homeostasis. And it needs a bit of time to do so.
Think about how when our friend says she is freaking out, we tell her to breathe. Our breath is our lifeline in many ways. When we see the snake we gasp — a quick and deep inhale — in order to power up our system for fight or flight. When we realize it’s a stick, we exhale in relief, which informs the vagus nerve to send projections to our brain stem alerting the nervous system to relax and reset.
In fact, we rock our babies to the rhythm of a heartbeat for a reason. Our bodies crave the gentle swaying — it’s soothing! Try it. Dance. Do yoga. Get into your body. Fight fire with fire. Fight emotional pain with the motions of movement.
There are thousands of physical education teachers returning to school who don’t know what to do with their students because no one can touch equipment. I believe they have the most important job in the school right now, because they can calm the amygdala and get students back to their bodies and beginning to heal. As parents, we want to support these educators to empower our children with this information — don’t just hand children the fish, instead, show them how to bait, cast, and reel it in themselves — show them how to calm their bodies and move up their brains.
Then there are those of us — and some of our kids, too — who don’t even need outside influences like the news or a snake to trigger an anxious state. We’re quite good at using our cortex, that thinking part of our brain, to fill in the blanks. Soon we’re not sleeping, we’re eating pints of ice cream and spiraling into despair just by thinking, “What if…?” We are thinking our way to an anxious state sans legitimate provocation. And what do we do when our children are worrying all the time, asking us “What if…?” We do what any well-meaning parent would do — absolutely anything to relieve the pain. So we say, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine. This is just a virus and you’re not going to get it.”
The lie: Reassurance and avoidance ease anxiety.
Unfortunately, the worry brain actually feeds on avoidance and reassurance. The worry is begging for a salve. But avoiding situations that trigger anxiety limits our joy in life and doesn’t teach us how to overcome (caveat: definitely avoid life-threatening situations!). Reassurance also doesn’t teach us how to problem-solve.
So let’s not do that. Let’s build the skills needed to manage the anxiety and enjoy life. Every single day of it. Here’s how to fight fire with fire — to use the cortex to calm the cortex-inspired worry.
Since the cortex came up with the worry in the first place, we can use its superpower against it. We focus on goals and visions and plans, because they are like kryptonite to the worry. We use our cortex to build skills and strategize. For example, we use logic when managing our response to COVID: science has proven that wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing helps. I can do that.
We can also talk back to worry: “Hey, you, worry brain, I don’t need you bugging me anymore. I’ve got skills. I’ve got a plan. I’m capable of managing this.” This kind of talk also separates us from the worry. The worry is not who we are — it’s just an interloper in our story. Tell it to get lost.
So the next time you feel your jaw clench or your heart starts to pound, remember our body is talking to us. Listen. What is it saying? What does it need? How can you release the tension and the corresponding emotions so they don’t manifest elsewhere? Do you need to use movement, or were your thoughts the culprit? Fight fire with fire.
Consider using words while calming the body!
Right before the cranial sacral therapist somehow shot what felt like a lightning bolt out of my foot, she asked me about my childhood. I was a good patient and free-associated my answer, meaning I just kept talking without any clear direction or agenda. Those were the moments during which the pain accumulated. The telling of our story, in the right setting and with the right person, can begin to unfold the layers of our lives so we can heal the pain that resides inside and we can shoot it across a room rather than drown it in a bottle of booze. I was both in my body and using my words when the pain left. Sometimes it takes a village.
I don’t know your pain, past or present. But I do know that pain exists and we can manage it.
The more work we do to free the emotional pain within our bodies, whether through physical movement, communication, or thought exercises, the higher we live in our brains, the healthier we feel, and the more success and significance we find in all aspects of our lives.
Paula Prentis, LMSW, CWP, is a licensed social worker and certified wellness professional. You can learn more about her work as a therapist and wellness coach at PaulaPrentis.com. You can also share free resources for schools to teach mental and physical health at YourSelfSeries.com.