In this time of crisis, we need balanced thinking. What isn’t often recognized is that balanced thinking depends upon balanced emotion.
The evidence for this goes back at least to 1908 when Harvard psychologists Robert Yerkes and John Dodson found the ability to use high-level thinking — now called executive function — depends upon arousal being neither too high nor too low.
If our autonomic nervous system works well, it regulates arousal automatically. In a temporary crisis, the sympathetic nervous system revs us up. Our heart rate and breathing rate increase. Energy to deal with the crisis is redirected from the gut to the muscles. When the crisis is over, the parasympathetic nervous system calms us down. It stimulates the vagus nerve to slow the heart rate, breathing rate, and to relax the gut.
For many of us, the parasympathetic nervous system doesn’t work well enough to bring us back to a state of emotional balance. The parasympathetic system is not mature at birth. How well it ultimately works depends upon how consistently caregivers calmed us, and how fully we built in the steps our caregivers used.
People with a high-functioning parasympathetic system operate on an even keel. If we don’t easily calm down, we need to be in control. If control eludes us, we may try to get out of the situation. If we can’t escape a stressful situation physically, we may escape psychologically through denial or distraction, or by using drugs or alcohol.
Our current crisis offers us few options. We are clearly not in control There is no place to run. Denial and distraction don’t hold up. Drugs and alcohol can keep reality at bay, but at a price that wise persons find unacceptable.
What can we do? Breathing exercises? Yoga? Meditation? Let me guess. You’ve tried these and they aren’t powerful enough.
A powerful way to activate the calming system was discovered by neuroscientist Stephen Porges. It is so powerful he calls it “vagal braking.” When we are with a person who is both physically and emotionally safe, they unconsciously transmit signals that activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The key player in this system is the vagus nerve. When it is stimulated, the vagus nerve overrides the sympathetic nervous system and provides powerful calming in spite of the stress hormones present.
We can use this calming effect by linking the situations that cause stress to a memory of the face, voice, and touch of a friend who is safe to be with physically and emotionally.
This method is detailed in my book, Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. The exercise below will get you started.
Identify a person who is easy-going. It needs to be someone who accepts you without question. It needs to be someone who does not judge you. Such a person transmits unconscious signals that — if we pick them up — fully activate our calming parasympathetic nervous system.
Write down a few troubling thoughts. One by one, use the following exercise to link each troubling thought to calming signals from your friend. You don’t have to do this in-person. Just remember being with him or her.
There are three areas that send calming signals:
- Face. Mostly around the eyes.
- Voice. Not what is said. The signals are in the person’s voice quality.
- Touch. A hug is ideal, but it could be some other affectionate or friendly touch.
Establish the links.
- Pretend you are with your friend. Pretend your friend is holding a cartoon by his or her face. In the imaginary cartoon, the cartoon character is in a stressful situation or thinking a stressful thought. As your friend holds the cartoon, your friend’s calming signals become associated with what the cartoon character is dealing with.
- Pretend you and your friend are holding the cartoon together so you both can see it and talk about it. Have an imaginary conversation. Your friend’s voice quality has a calming influence on what the cartoon character is facing.
- As you have the pretend conversation, imagine your friend puts an arm around your waist and gives you a hug.
Why do we use cartoon characters? To control anxiety, we need the exercise to be as anxiety-free as possible. We are used to cartoon characters getting into seemingly impossible situations. But because they always find a way out, we don’t take their plight seriously.