Episode 36 – Cultivating Calm during COVID-19 with Julie Long
written by Julie Long (Founder and Counsellor) on 16/04/20
Our world is in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s challenging all of us and it’s bringing up many feelings some of which may include: fear, despair, loneliness, introspection, connection, and joy.
Despite each of our unique situations, we’re all responding in different ways. Some people are on the front lines making sure we all stay safe. Others are homeschooling their kids while trying to work from home. There are some small businesses and professionals who have had to close their doors or whose businesses are halted to an almost complete stop. Some people are decluttering their homes, taking online courses, or starting home projects they’d been meaning to do for a long time. Others may be having trouble getting out of their pyjamas or staving off the panic driven thoughts and feelings of how they will pay their bills, take care of their kids, or stay safe inside their own homes.
Whichever scenario feels like yours, I think we are all experiencing moments during this pandemic where we feel unsure, scared, or perhaps out of control. So what do we do during these moments so that we can make it through, together?
I’d like to start with a grounding exercise entitled, Welcoming Practice. It’s from a book a read called, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga – Reclaiming Your Body written by David Emerson and Elizabeth Hopper, PhD. I will talk more about it more later in the podcast but it may be a nice way to take a break. And it’s found on page 7.
You may have heard the phrase, “feel your feelings” and that feelings are natural. We don’t choose them but we can choose how to move through them. The thing is we need to be able to handle our feelings in order to sit in them in order to move through them. When I work with clients we talk about something called a window of tolerance, a term noted by Dan Siegel and Pat Ogden.
Everyone’s window, or capacity to be with and manage their feelings, is a different size: some emotional windows are smaller than others and they may feel overwhelmed sooner than someone who has a larger window who can tolerate more challenging situations for longer. No capacity is better than another – it just is.
What’s most important is knowing our own capacity so we can manage our own emotions. When we feel out of our window of tolerance, we could have a heightened response to a situation with an increased heart rate, breathing, feeling nauseous or having racing thoughts, or feeling overwhelmed with emotion, or acting impulsively. Or we could be outside of our window with a more shut down or collapsed response like a decrease in our heart rate or breathing, feeling like we can’t think at all, feeling numb or depressed, withdrawing from our people or activities, or feeling extremely sleepy.
Once we know what being out of our window of tolerance looks like for us, it’s important to know that it may change given what is happening in our lives. With a pandemic, our usual capacity probably looks different now. You could think of it as your capacity to work out when you are sick or after you’ve been injured. Initially, we take time to give our body a chance to heal and then we work slowly to gain back our strength. The same is with feelings after an adverse life event. How we feel our feelings will look differently for everyone but the common action is to titrate or make that capacity bigger, little by little, by noticing and then taking a break to ground, then repeat until we feel calm again.
Before we feel our feelings, it’s important to know about how to ground ourselves when we notice that we have left our window of tolerance. So if the feelings we are sitting in begin to feel overwhelming, then we know that we can press pause and know how to get back to baseline without feeling like we need to numb out, or injure ourselves or those around us.
When grounding, an option is to shift our focus to our senses…what we can see, feel, taste, touch, and smell. I encourage clients to have their own tool kit of items that are meaningful to them so they can engage their mind and body to something that elicits positive feelings rather than the negative ones they are currently experiencing.
For instance, a picture of a place that makes them feel calm like a beach setting or path through the forest. Maybe they have an app on their phone that has nature sounds (like Naturespace) that reminds them of being at the beach or on that path. Perhaps they have a jar of sand or a twig to touch and a shell or pine essential oil to smell. Having a piece of watermelon or fruit punch flavoured glass of water can be grounding. If they engage these senses in that positive association then their mind shifts focus and their body engages in the sensations associated with that positive environment. The result? Calm
And if you aren’t at home and don’t have access to your calming tool kit, you could try the Earth, Air, Water, and Fire exercise by an EMDR therapist named Elan Shapiro (in a separate space where you can be alone like your car or a bathroom stall to ).
Earth signals you to ground in the present by placing both feet on the floor and noticing the chair supporting you or the surface beneath your shoes. Maybe you can look around and notice three things you can see and hear taking note of the colour, shapes, and volume. Air signals you to centre by breathing in for 4 seconds then holding for 2 seconds, and and then breathing out for another 4 seconds. You can notice the difference in temperature as you breathe in and out. Water signals you to make saliva in your mouth (maybe you think about your favourite food) so your body is encouraged to relax by activating your digestive system which pauses during our sympathetic or survival response when we feel out of control. Then fire signals you to light up your imagination – perhaps by thinking about that calm place we spoke about earlier or an activity that you know helps you feel grounded like talking with your favourite person or doing your favourite activity like reading and sipping chai tea.
If you are someone who needs some guidance, you could download the app, Calm in the Storm developed by Klinic to help people manage stress, promote resilience, good mental health and prevent suicide. For more information you can visit this website: http://klinic.mb.ca/2014/12/klinic-launches-new-app-for-managing-stress-saving-lives/.
Maybe to feel grounded you need to move your body. In his first book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, co-authored with Elizabeth Hopper, PhD, David Emerson presented ways to reclaim your body after trauma. These options to move your body into different positions may help to facilitate a shift in your body. These movements can be done slowly while sitting in a chair.
In this book, he suggested to try a forward fold if you are feeling frozen so that you can let go of the tension in your back. An option is to lean your forearms on your thighs, or maybe place your fingertips on the ground, or if it works for you, you could hold your elbows while you hang freely. Making a choice on whatever position feels best for you in that moment.
Another suggestion is to try some neck rolls by allowing your chin to drop towards your heart or sternum. Then if you wanted you could gently roll your left ear to your left shoulder and then gently roll from side to side, choosing whatever direction and speed feels right to you. I hold lots of tension in my shoulders and find when I do neck rolls I automatically take nice deep breaths. It may feel good just to choose how to move when choosing other things in life during a pandemic is a little harder.
Another option, if you are feeling off or conflicted with your feelings, you could try a seated twist to help you feel more centred. With your feet on the ground, when you feel like moving, you could slowly turn to the left. An option is to place your left hand to your left hip and your right hand across your left thigh. If you can maintain your feet on the ground, you may like to notice your ability to sit tall and feel the expanse across the front of your body. This might be a moment to take a breath or experiment with the twist – moving in whatever way feels right for your body in that moment maintaining a comfortable level of breath and making choices with your body without feeling like you are forcing yourself into any position that compromises your breathing. When you feel ready you can unwind the left side and try on the right side moving back and forth until you are ready to be still in the middle again.
For free guided videos of Trauma Centre Trauma Sensitive Yoga (TCTSY)during the covid crisis you can visit this website https://www.traumasensitiveyoga.com/temporary-online-tctsy.html. For someone closer to home, you can reach out to one of our Safe Harbour Clinicians, Joy Onyschuk, who is also offering online movement sessions to help people’s bodies to shift from states of alarm to states of calm. You can find her links by visiting our website or https://www.joysomatics.ca or join into our podcast in a few weeks!
Other than grounding in our senses and maybe moving our body, many people have the instinct to ground with people, we are social creatures after all and use connection to calm by activating our vagal brake. During a pandemic when we are all in isolation, sometimes that can pose a problem. I suppose that’s the benefit of technology to call, Facetime, Skype or zoom our loved ones. So we can hear the care in their voice and see it in their face Some people during the pandemic have gone outside their loved ones window or are speaking to them from their balcony. Or like in Italy singing in unison with each other. If we are living with others, it may be playing a board game, having an intimate conversation, or simply sitting in the same room watching tv or reading a book. It may not be the usual interactions but at least it’s something, right?!
Grounding can be found by doing something with our hands like drawing, knitting, cleaning, gardening, building a ninja wall (like my sister in MN), or doing art like the art directives with Jess Winnicki (see her podcast from 2 weeks ago or in a couple of weeks as well.)
Once we feel grounded and present in our body, it may help to tend to our thoughts. Our thoughts can turn negative quite quickly and race out of control, especially when we are in a life situation that is outside of our control. Some people can fall into a trap or distort reality by predicting the future, imagining the worst case possible or only seeing the negative in a situation and completely dismissing the positive. But if we write them down or speak them out loud, we can challenge the reality of our thoughts which may lead to slowing them down and shifting them into a more neutral or positive state.
Some possible questions to ask yourself are:
- What’s the evidence that this thought is true or untrue?
- What’s a thought and what’s a fact in this situation?
- Am I overestimating the situation?
- What would I tell a friend who had the same thought?
- If this thought did happen, what could I do to cope?
If you need some guidance, there are many apps out there to help reframe our thoughts like Mindshift, by https://www.anxietycanada.com or ThinkUp that helps us build a positive mindset through affirmations. It may also help to talk to a therapist, if you visit our website, you can see those therapists who are offering virtual therapy at this time.
Maintaining distance from our thoughts and remaining present in our bodies can be profoundly impacted by meditation. There’s ample evidence out there as to the benefits of meditation in relieving stress, building resilience, managing emotions, addictions, attention span and so much more.
So I will leave you with a meditation that I read in the book, Radical Acceptance – Embracing your Life with the Heart of A Buddha by Tara Brach. She has an app with Jack Kornfield called Work Mindful. But there are many apps out there that are offering free meditation like Breethe, Headspace, or Insight Timer, if you like guidance to help you meditate. The meditation is found on page 195 and it’s entitled Meeting Fear with an Open and Engaged Presence.
Please know that all of us at Safe Harbour are wishing you health and wellness during this pandemic.
Brach, T. Radical Acceptance Embracing Your Lie with the Heart of a Buddha (New York:Bantam Books, 2003).
Emerson, D. and Hopper, E. Overcoming Trauma through Yoga Reclaiming your Body (California: North Atlantic Books, 2011).
Penner Hutton, K. EMDR Basic Training Manual (Manitoba: Peace of Mind Therapy and Consultation, 2019).
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