As I write this article, I am mindful of where we are in this unique place and time in history. We are coming into our second year of a global pandemic that has halted our “normal” way of life in all corners of the world on many many levels.
Here in Greece where I sit we are in our second lockdown of the year. Retail stores and gyms are closed indefinitely, restaurants open only for delivery, we are not allowed to leave our neighborhoods without the specified reasons of healthcare or work or to go to the supermarket.
Children have been studying at home since November, and in first round of quarantine in the spring they lost a good three months of school. Parents are exhausted, children are going stir crazy.
And while we are excited at the prospect that they will return to school tomorrow, the question on many of our minds is - Is it really safe???
The concept of safety - physical safety- triggers a neurobiological response commonly referred to as “fight or flight.” See Harvard Medical School for a more scientifically detailed explanation, but in short, when the brain receives a perceived threat to our survival, it prepares the body to defend itself. The body is flooded with stress hormones, and blood leaves the brain and torso travels to our limbs to meet the danger by either fighting back or running away. Functions like digestion are halted, which explains why we might lose our appetite or have an upset stomach when we are stressed.
The problem is, the part of the brain in charge of this response is the same brain that we share with the earliest humans, the cavemen. If your family was like mine this holiday season, and watched The Croods 30,000 times, think about how that prehistoric clan reacted to stress before Guy and the Bettermans came into the picture.
To be clear, the stress response is not using evolved parts of the brain capable of advanced reasoning and thought processes. (Perhaps that explains much of the behavior we witnessed at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday... but I don’t want to digress into a political discussion, at least not now.)
The reaction is truly primal. It's animalistic and instinctive. And it is being triggered constantly because we are inundated with stressors that the brain is interpreting as life-threatening, like work deadlines and kids who need a nap/snack/binky/show/cuddle/bandaid/the list goes on.
Let alone the fact that we have been facing a true threat to our health and physical well-being this entire year, and besides Covid’s economic implications, we are watching democracy crumble with the political s#*tshow happening in the States, plus Brexit, BLM, not to mention the social isolation!
Whoa. I needed to take a breath. We are dealing with a lot and none of it is to be taken lightly.
However, let me draw your attention back to the mechanics of the stress response. Remember what I said earlier, the blood leaves the brain to meet the stress - so people who are constantly in fight or flight - and many of us are - aren’t necessarily playing with a full deck, if you catch my drift.
Unless we know how to disarm our body’s defense system, and allow the body to return to homeostasis, we are meeting whatever stressors come our way with instinctual reactive patterns that probably don’t reflect our best selves.
Before you go get your panties all in a bunch and look for the corkscrew to open a bottle of wine, reprogramming your mind and body is not as complicated as you might imagine. And actually, many techniques are so simple, even kids can and do enjoy doing them!
In this image above, my nine year-old is modeling one of my favorite Eden Method stress hacks - the frontal neurovascular head hold. Next time you notice your mind racing over something that makes you anxious, try placing one hand over your forehead, and the other hand on the back of the head on the occipital lobe (just in line with the eyes).
You can do this sitting in a chair, or, my preference, lying down in bed, with some pillows propped up under your elbows so you can totally relax. (And mom hack -this is a great hold to perform on a restless child at bedtime to get them settled down to sleep.)
What this hold does is tell your brain- "even though these thoughts make me nervous, you can stand down." Having your hands on the head keeps blood attracted to the area. So the blood stays in the brain instead of traveling to the limbs, thus deactivating the fight or flight response. You can focus on your stress all you want, and by doing so, you are saying - "hey body, we got this!" while teaching it NOT to over-react to that particular thought pattern or memory. The result is you can meet your stress from a place of calm and rationality.
Winston Churchill said during WWII — “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” This great pause has provided us with the opportunity to reset our direction, reevaluate our priorities, and focus on what truly matters most. What we do with this opportunity is up to each and every one with us, in how we show up in our lives and to each other, especially during times of upheaval. I mean, imagine if Trump knew how to self-soothe...
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade they say. Well, here in Greece the lemons are ripe and abundant. Are we going to make something tart or sweet?