Is Your Nervous System Agitated? Me too.
This is a strange and frightening time to be alive. There is widespread infectious disease leading to layoffs, tanking 401ks, economic and health uncertainty leading to fear, anxiety, and stress. We are worried about ourselves and our loved ones. Now is the time to remember the power and importance of realizing our togetherness through it all.
We’re all facing our own vulnerability in our own ways. Pandemics, historically have been most devastating to the most vulnerable among us. We know that there will not be enough beds. We know that there will not be enough ventilators. Many have already suffered. We are anticipating a great deal of loss in the coming days and weeks here in the U.S.
My wife and I were watching the PBS Newshour Weekend Edition which featured a powerful interview. Correspondent Karla Murthy spoke with Dr. Alexis Langsfeld, who works in an emergency room at a New York City hospital, about her personal experiences. The interview speaks volumes about love, fear, courage, responsibility, and duty.
Notice What is Sitting With You Right Now as You Read This.
Do not underestimate the power and influence of your ability to remain calm and centered around the people you love, as well as around your fellow citizens. Fear and reactivity can do a lot of harm. Fear can become one of the greatest dangers in a pandemic. And so, each and every single one of us is responsible for our contribution to the whole group, and how it moves through this event. We can access the calm and compassion within and do a lot of good for ourselves and for others. We can learn how to hold fear, with mindfulness and compassion.
If you’re intentional as you confront the suffering – within and around you – that arises from this event, you can access one of your deepest resources to carry you through; Your love. This is how we can grow during these times. Recall that fear is natural and appropriate when we are facing danger and the threat of loss. It is our innate protector. So often, when fear comes up, we respond automatically with self-talk like, “I shouldn’t be feeling this” or “I need to get rid of this”. But in fact, fear belongs within us, especially in this moment.
Meet the Fear and Anxiety with a Transformative Practice: R.A.I.N.
How do we find that refuge in the midst of this viral blizzard we’re all in? One of my meditation teachers, Tara Brach introduced me to this concept of R.A.I.N., this tool of radical compassion that shows us the way to who we really are. First, when fear is really strong (panic, trauma response, etc.) we are outside what is called “the window of tolerance”, we first need to calm down our nervous system. There are a number of ways we can do this:
- Working with the energy that is inside; Taking a long deep inhalation (5 count) and a slow deep exhalation (5 count) – doing this while also witnessing what is arising (sensations, thoughts, emotions, etc.)
- Discharging the energy off of us; Shaking, stretching, dancing, walking in nature, etc.
These methods can help to work skillfully with thoughts. The most basic way to work with thoughts, is to train in being mindful of thinking – this is incredibly arduous I assure you, but it is absolutely attainable if you are committed and working with a skilled meditation instructor.
So once we’ve dealt with intense fears and begun to calm down the nervous system, that’s when we can begin to deepen attention with R.A.I.N.:
R – Recognize what’s going on: “I see you, Fear, I won’t turn away from you” Recognize whatever is there in the moment. Name it. Name whatever you are aware of. Naming the emotion (Affect labeling) reduces limbic activity and activates the prefrontal cortex which helps you reassert the sense of control. When you name an emotion, it begins to lose its power over you.
A – Allow it to be there: When we try to allow fear, “bargaining mind” comes along for the ride; We say to ourselves, “I’ll allow you to be here, if you promise to go away.” You must be willing to let the sensations be there. To whatever is arising inside of you, you can gently say to yourself, “this belongs”. The research on exposure therapy is crystal clear with regards to voluntary confrontation and it’s opposite, avoidance: “What we resist, persists.” So you might ask yourself the question, “Can I just feel this?” The answer is, “Yes!” You are more capable and strong than you could ever possibly imagine. I promise you.
I – Investigate it: We’re asking ourselves, “What *really* am I unwilling to feel right now?” The biggest misunderstanding in R.A.I.N., is that investigating is cognitive. We need to investigate the somatic sensations. We need to explore what’s inside the body. Where am I feeling this? It’s incredibly helpful to bring your hand to wherever you are sensing the reactivity and place it there on your body (throat, chest, belly, shoulders, neck). When you place your hand there, it will help you keep your exploratory attention where you are looking, because our mind tends to scatter, especially away from unpleasant sensations. Investigating also begins to offer some nurturing; If investigating isn’t gentle, isn’t kind, then we won’t be able really to get the emotion to fully show itself.
N – Nurture it: We have to customize this for ourselves, what feels nurturing in this moment to you? You can offer yourself words of comfort, “I’m here; I’m not leaving; I care about you; I’m sorry, and I love you; It’s okay sweetheart.” The continued touch can keep things tender. We can also let the nurturing in from a larger source. Calling on whatever source of love there is to offer us kindness. If this is difficult for some of you, I would recommend listening to Sharon Salzberg’s talks on the Metta tradition of Loving Kindness and Kristen Neff’s work with Self-Compassion.
What Happens After I Practice This Over, and Over Again?
After we skillfully work through the R.A.I.N., we then rest in the presence of this more full awareness. This shifts us out of fight, flight, freeze to a more skillful way of working with feelings that Tara calls, “Attend and befriend”. Becoming more familiar with this presence is closer to the truth of who you really are. You are more “this self” than any of the stories that you are living in, e.g. “I’m not doing a good enough job”. Rather than being “the agitated self”, or “the scared self”, that tender awareness is who you really are.
The real key in this work is learning to Love the Fear. If we start off by just trying to hack our minds and say, “yea okay Robin, I get it, I will just love the fear”, that would be coming from a place of ego, and that simply does not work. Our complex minds are way too smart to fall for that trick. The biochemistry of fear and love are so radically different that you can’t just fast track the shift in awareness. Recognize it, Allow it, gently Investigate it until there is this vulnerability where we can truly be open to Nurturing and let the love wash over us.
This is not necessarily going to work the first time you try this. Every time you practice, the neural pathway becomes stronger and you find your way more easily. I think about the trails in my own backyard. I’m grateful that my family can take this time of physical distancing and hike the trails that exist, and work on exploring some new pathways. The more we walk them, the more clear they become. May whatever suffering arises from this event, may it awaken the compassion within my heart and in all hearts.
Are You Ready to Practice?
Listen to Tara’s Short Talk and Guided Meditation: Bringing RAIN to Fear (March 23, 2020)
Frequently Asked Questions: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and Maintaining Mental Health
Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Frequently Asked Questions (Updated March 20th)
This article was directly inspired by Tara Brach’s talk on Facing Pandemic Fears with an Awake Heart. She truly is our international, rockstar-level, hometown hero in the meditation community!
Robin S. Smith, MS, LCMFT is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in clinical practice in Bethesda MD. As an MFT, he specializes in relationship issues for couples, families, and individuals, for improved quality of life. His areas of expertise include: transition to parenthood for new and expecting parents, infidelity, sex and intimacy issues, premarital counseling, and trauma. Robin has given talks to various groups including hospital administrators, graduate students, fellow psychotherapists, and child birth educators. He is the primary contributor to The Couple and Family Clinic Blog.