We’ve had the rug pulled out from under our feet. Within one week in March, everything suddenly changed leaving us afraid and upset. Three weeks ago we reached a breaking point around police brutality against Black people. Millions of people are educating themselves, and are on the streets, making their voices heard.

Our old lifestyle is gone. Some of us know people who have been sick with Covid, know people who have died, and we may be one of the millions of people who are struggling financially. All of us feel the impact of the pandemic. What will the new normal look like?

Our nervous systems are struggling to stay regulated. We practice breathing and relaxation exercises, get outdoors for exercise, and connect with friends and family on Zoom, yet our bodies are contracted and tight, and many of us still aren’t sleeping well.

Impulses arise driven by our primitive brain’s need for safety. Our systems are stressed and we are looking for ways to feel better. It is human nature to comfort ourselves and there is a strong pull back to what worked for us in the past. What’s the harm in a few drinks after a hard day? Ice cream and a Netflix series on the weekend? We need a break from fear and distress and we turn to the familiar.

“Our brain is like Teflon for good and Velcro for bad.” Dr Rick Hanson, neuropsychologist

We have well established pathways or neural networks in our brain that drive behavior. People learn from experience that the foods with the trifecta of sugar, salt and fat trigger feel good hormones in our brain. A joint or a drink helps us relax and we feel less anxious as we connect with friends. For some people the bright lights and shiny things at the shopping mall help them regulate.

The problem isn’t that we are reaching for comfort or that any of these things are necessarily bad occasionally or in the short term. Often the issue is that we have a super highway in our brain developed from years of use and it takes very little to hook us again. Now what do we do?

  1. Acknowledge that craving and compulsions are normal. Our nervous systems respond to threat by seeking safety and comfort, and it is natural to go back to what has worked in the past.
  2. Stop shaming yourself. It can be obvious — your inner critic is disgusted with you for being weak and stupid. It can also be less vocal. We slump down and hardly breathe as we are immersed in shame. Shaming shuts us down and we feel helpless. It is OK to be frustrated. It is not OK to shame ourselves. Research proves our intuitive experience that when we shame ourselves we disconnect from ourselves and it makes addictive behaviors worse.
  3. Notice all or nothing thinking and give yourself credit for doing your best. Remind yourself that these are unprecedented times and we are all off kilter. You may be supporting yourself in many healthy ways and still zone out on Netflix or have trouble getting out of bed.
  4. Be clear about the health impact of short term coping mechanisms without shaming yourself. Denial isn’t our friend. What starts off as “taking a break occasionally” might send us on a fast slide into addiction. A superhighway in our brain from past addiction takes us back there very quickly. High stress times are ideal conditions for driving addiction.
  5. Be realistic about what you need and what you can do. Harm reduction might look like increasing walking outdoors and eating something healthy before you do _______ We need to work with clear minds and open hearts. Especially for people who are on the journey of healing trauma, work with the nuance of pushing the edges of your window of tolerance without overwhelming yourself.
  6. Mindfulness helps us to monitor our level of compulsion. There are days when we are emotionally flooded and there are days when we are steadier on our feet. What do you need right now? Can you get out for a walk to down-regulate or do you need to zone out? Can you call a friend first then re-evaluate how you feel and see what you need then?
  7. Write down things that help you feel better and keep it on your phone or print it so you can refer to it when you feel desperate. Dancing to a favorite song will shift your energy. Hold your own hands or give yourself a hug. Extended exhaling breathing calms us. Read aloud. Stand up and shake your body. There are more suggestions here https://lynnfraserstillpoint.com/healing-trauma/emergency-practices/
  8. Acknowledge your struggles and your strengths. Don’t give up on yourself! You are capable of making it through this hard time using your strength and resilience. Shame disconnects us from our inspiration of doing better and treating ourselves well. We actually are not helpless.
  9. Give yourself all the compassion and empathy you can find and keep doing that again and again. If you have trouble being kind to yourself, imagine if your beloved friend or child is struggling this way. What would be the most helpful support you could provide to them? You might be truthful and say “look, this is what I’m seeing.” You might say “Let’s go for a walk together and check in after work every day.” Then offer that to yourself. Practice being on your own side. What does it feel like when you offer yourself kindness when you are frustrated instead of shame? Every time we are on our own side, go for that walk, eat a healthy meal or practice breathing and relaxation, we are developing new highways in our brain.
  10. Try inquiry. The Reverse Inquiry can help reveal hidden beliefs. Below are some examples, or come up with your own.

Begin by settling your body into a comfortable position. Take a few minutes to relax and breathe. Notice your feet on the floor and the energy in your body as you listen to the guided practice or work with these statements.

I don’t need to drink (or smoke pot) to calm myself

I don’t need to eat sweet/fatty/salty food to make it through the evening

I am confident and sure that I will be okay without ____________