Keeping calm and safe during times of chaos

by | Mar 7, 2022 | Stress, Trauma | 0 comments

Lately it may feel as if unprecedented is the new precedent. Pandemics, floods and war are large-scale catastrophes, bringing the knowledge and experience of human suffering into our hearts and homes. Perhaps you have noticed a shift in your level of alertness (hyper-arousal), which is a normal response to danger. The news of flood or war may be triggering memories or physical states that reactivate past trauma. Maybe you are feeling heavy hearted as you make your morning coffee and think about the suffering of others around you and far away.

If you would like to have a positive focus during dark times and be an anchor for your family and friends around you, here are some suggestions:

  1. Review your basic psychological needs, which are just as important as food, water and sleep. These are autonomy (or healthy control of ourselves and our experiences), competence (being able to positively influence outcomes we value), and relatedness (feeling connected to others by giving and receiving love and care). You could:
    • Choose how you will engage with the news cycle (autonomy)
    • Do something you’re really good at every day (competence)
    • Make time for a chat on the phone with a good friend (relatedness)
  1. Practice finding safety in your body. Psychologists call this ‘down regulation’ which involves engaging in activities that calm stress and hyper-stimulation by reactivating our parasympathetic nervous systems, signaling that danger has passed and we can rest.
    • Slow breathing (for more than 3 mins, and with a longer out-breath)
    • Progressive muscle relaxation (slow and systematic attention to major muscle groups, letting go of tension)
    • Guided mindfulness or imagery exercise to slow things down and tune in to that vulnerable part of you that needs soothing (check out Lauren Chee’s free ‘Psychologist in your Pocket’ recordings)
  1. Be aware of a ‘vulnerability to harm’ system. When we feel vulnerable, there will be a system that maintains this state. Our thoughts may narrow in on sources of danger, distorting and intensifying perceived threats. We might have a range of ‘safety behaviours’, such as endless checking of the news in an effort to reduce our uncertainty, further entrenching our vulnerability. Our bodies may confirm these fears via the amygdala response, which matches perceived threat with a cascade of stress hormones and physiological changes. Instead:
    • Practise realistic and helpful thinking – stepping back to observe our thoughts (defusion) and changing them (cognitive restructuring).
    • Change catastrophic thinking such as “I can’t believe it!” and “What next!?” to realistic and helpful thoughts such as “I am having a tough time but I will get through this”. The plasticity of our brains means that with practice, realistic and helpful thoughts will literally build new pathways and set up a new system of safety.