• Tiger Lily Raphael

Sanctuary In The Self #3: Surviving A Pandemic Of Fear

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

A blog for Balance Garden, about finding sanctuary in these strange times.

As if we didn’t already have enough personal and collective crises to be concerned with before a contagious killer cough went on the rampage, Covid-19 could’ve sent your fear and anxiety spiralling into oblivion. Or, perhaps you’re someone whose ‘high levels of internal pressure’ were instead tempered by ‘lockdown relief’, ‘anxious rumination eclipsed’ by real world events, that may have offered ‘a sense of perspective’ [1].

I’ve found myself in both places at different times, taking permission to slow down and tend to old wounds (read about that in ‘Falling in Love During Lockdown’), to the sly return of the invisible monster who likes to sit on my shoulder and whisper sour nothings into my ear. But, I’m getting better at choosing to listen to the sweet sounds of the lightly-footed sparrow sitting on the other side, singing, not because it has an answer, but because it has a song [2].

Still, a looming recession and climate crisis well underway, opportunistic advances of disaster capitalism touting touch-less technology [16], a polluted political stream of populist xenophobia, and collapsing eco-systems and international unions, can all weigh heavily on my heart, as, each day, I get a little bit older. If looking for things to worry about, there’s no shortage. Meanwhile, a hug has become socially unacceptable and the loud silence of summer festivities can make comforting distractions seem in short supply.

There are many unseen forms in which fear might appear, and different things that invite it into existence for each of us, but we all share the same physiological response. Our brains are coded by the primitive programming designed to protect us from danger as primates, and humans have since learnt to use this survival software in the modern world we’re born into.

As I once wrote: ‘we aren't taught how to fend for ourselves in the wild; when to run away and when to pounce. Instead, we're protected as much as possible from any physical danger; knives, electricity, stairs, fire - born into a world of relationship, where what we learn to fear is formed by how others relate to and meet our emotional needs’. 

These experiences inform the amygdala, which stores emotional memory, and hippocampus, which retrieves them – together, responding to a ‘perceived threat’ [3] and, before we know it, activating the fight-flight-freeze response [4]. Whether the threat is emotional or physical, real or potential, past or future, it’s probably out of our control, as is the body’s response.

The sympathetic nervous system drives the survival response - the accelerator, stepped on when an SOS is sent from the amygdala, telling the adrenal glands to release stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These drugs speed up the heart and lungs to generate more energy, make blood clot more easily, and send it away from the surface, to our muscles, so they’re ready to put ‘em up, run away, or freeze, while we prepare to make the next move [3].

On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) is the brake, slowing us down so the body can put up the good fight inside its cell walls, making it possible to feed and breed. It steadies our heart rate, makes tears to keep our eyes hydrated, saliva to help us digest food, controls levels of glucose and adrenaline, contracts the bladder, erects the penis and relaxes the rectum. 75% of the PSNS is controlled by the vagus nerve [5].

Survival mode pauses the PSNS from properly carrying out the restorative tasks that actually keep us alive, so they don’t interrupt our fight, flight or freeze response. Too much cortisol, which controls the regulation of blood sugar, inflammation, metabolism and memory, is linked to weight gain, acne, chronic fatigue, flushed skin, muscle weakness, forgetfulness, high blood pressure, and headaches. [6].

Our physical response to fear may be destructive, but the emotional response need not be. In a patriarchal, consumer-capitalist society, fear is a weakness we’re taught to resist and overcome by sheer strength. “Don’t worry, be happy” we say, “keep calm and carry on”… But maybe that isn’t a solution. Ignoring the cause of our concern and treating only its symptoms may not lead to long-term health and happiness, which is what most of us are after, right?

Some of the most creative thinkers, writers, painters and actors, aren’t in the habit of suppressing their fears, but have fed their imaginations with them, [7] and what they reveal: mortality, the unknown, love. Fear is a story of which we are both the author and reader, one we can translate, decipher, and decide what of it we act on.

The root of the word ‘courage’ is ‘cuer’, or ‘cor’ - Old French and Latin words for ‘heart’ [8]. We can’t be brave if something isn’t scary, and if it is scary, then it means something. ‘The opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s indifference’ [9], and we don’t fear what we’re indifferent to.

Ignoring fear risks avoiding what or who it is we’re so afraid to lose or miss out on. Fear can protect us from danger but also our greatest wishes, dreams and ambitions, lest we fail - so it’s safer not to try. Fear is the sign of a challenge that asks for effort and courage, rather than offering ease and instant gratification, and usually leads to life’s greatest adventures.

The purpose of fear is to prevent us suffering a mortal wound, but when we refuse to risk a wound to pride, prejudice, or the heart, we cease living altogether. This is what stops us acting when something is wrong, when we see injustice or erosion of freedom. That is the fear that should start us up, not shut us down.

I propose a two-way approach to managing fear that may seem to lead in opposite directions, but end up in the same place; acknowledging fear is the best way start understanding its emotional cause, and also helps to combat the fight-flight-freeze response. Ignoring it doesn’t. Meanwhile, here are some (proven) tips to calm the physical response, when it’s inevitably triggered by our hardwired survival instinct, but when there is really nothing to fear.

Calming Techniques

Stimulate the vagus nerve, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, and put the brakes on. It’s connected to the throat, ears, eyes, stomach and lungs, amongst other less accessible things, so it can be coaxed into action by humming, speaking, singing, gargline, deep breathing*, yoga, fasting, probiotics, omega-3s and acupuncture [10]. 

Deep breathing: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 2, exhale for 6, this will bring your breathing rate down to about 8 from about 14 (the usual rate) and activate the vagus nerve [12].

Walk in nature. The Romantics were big on the power of transcendence, which I recommend reading about in Alain De Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’ (and his other books and blog - The Book of Life).

Use your peripheral vision, ideally on your walk in nature. This is how we’d see the world in the wild, focusing our vision only when spying a threat, which would activate the fight-flight-freeze response. Using focused vision most of the time in the modern world keeps stress hormones flowing [11]. 

Meditation, yoga or Qi Gong – there are plenty of resources for these. Meditation was never easy for me but I recommend Deepak Chopra’s Daily Breath podcast, yoga with Balance Garden and this free set of ‘Immunity Emergency Kit’ of Qi Gong classes with Lee Holden.

Bring yourself back to the present moment. There are of course many ways of doing this. One way is to focus on 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste. Or transform fear into excitement with an anchoring thought about the thing on the other side of fear.

Limit social media. You are adequate and enough.

Have a cry. Tears expel stress hormones and other toxins [13].

Shake. This can release tension and trauma, sending blood back around the body from the brain and muscles where it’s sent by the fight-flight-freeze response [14].

Practice gratitude. This focuses the mind on abundance and security, rather than scarcity and uncertainty. Make a list in your mind, out loud or write it down in a journal.

Get involved with your community and grassroots campaigns. Activism has been found to improve mental health because it feels like you’re doing something [15].

Switch off the news – wanting to keep up with it is a survival instinct in itself, but even if there’s no direct threat, it will activate your fear response, so don’t overdo it. And remember, it’s full of anomalies. it is scientifically proven that most people are good. As my Aunt commented on my last blog about fear: 

“Nightly forays into the dis-heartening news on my phone were beginning to crush me under the burden of what the rabbi and peace activist A.J. Heschel once called the 'immense silent agony of the world'. Just switching off the phone for the whole twenty-four hours of Shabbat has really helped to still the 'noisy' onslaught on my consciousness - not to induce indifference to the greed, stupidity, injustice, and plundering of the environment - but to help me to struggle more effectively against it.”

And remember, ‘Death is the worst thing that can happen… so why wouldn’t we take risks, live the dreams, love with all our heart? Be afraid of not doing that. Be brave, jump in, it might hurt, but it's worth it to feel alive’ [16]

  1. The Guardian, Apr 20, ‘The lockdown paradox: why some people's anxiety is improving during the crisis’

  2. A bird sings, not because it has an answer, but because it has a song’, card from Ben McCabe in about 2006.

  3. Healthline, Fight, Flight, Freeze: What This Response Means

  4. ThoughtCo., Regina Bailey (2018), The Limbic System of the Brain

  5. Healthline, Your Parasympathetic Nervous System Explained

  6. Healthline, High cortisol symptoms: what do they mean?

  7. TED, Karen Thompson Walker (2012), What fear can teach us

  8. TEDx, Brene Brown (2010), The power of vulnerability

  9. Wilhelm Stekel (1921), The Beloved Ego: Foundations of the New Study of the Psyche

  10. Wellness Mama, Katie Wells (2018), How to Stimulate Vagus Nerve Function to Reduce Inflammation and Support the Brain

  11.  Jasmine Pradhan, Balance Garden founder, Himalayan Yoga Trek 2019

  12.  Deepak Chopra, Daily Breath podcast

  13. Medical News Today, Eight benefits of crying: Why it's good to shed a few tears

  14. Patient, Can shaking exercises improve stress and PTSD?

  15. The Independent, Eleanor Busby (2019), 'Climate change activism ‘reducing mental health symptoms among young people’

  16. The Guardian, Naomi Klein (2020), How big tech plans to profit from the pandemic

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