If your heart races or your chest tightens when you listen to the news about the pandemic, it’s your sympathetic nervous system firing up because your brain senses a threat.

This is meant to last just long enough to give us the strength to run or fight back to survive. But what happens when our perception of danger lasts much longer? We all know from our own current experience, there are significant physical, mental and emotional consequences to the kind of prolonged stress brought on by a pandemic. And with the holidays approaching, let’s look at a few things to do to lift your mood.

Professor Stephen Porges PhD, University Scientist at Indiana University, proposes that when we can’t make the danger go away, and can’t connect with others to feel safe either, we find ourselves moving into a state of ‘dissociation’.  This is a ‘checked out’ state where we feel powerless and unable to control or change our circumstances.

Dr. Porges suggests that we need to engage our ventral vagal nerve network, a part of the nervous system which helps us calm down when we engage in healthy social interactions.  This neural network picks up social cues such as smiling faces, eye-contact and deep breaths. It lets our brain know that all is well. When this happens, the executive centre of our brain also gets a ‘safety message’, allowing us to more clearly think though our current challenges.

Here are four ways to feel more calm and less isolated:

  1. Notice how you feel

Where do you hold stress? In your shoulders? As a headache?  Take care of your own unique physical responses to stress with a simple walk, stretching, or nourishment break. Naming how you feel is also a useful cognitive tool for lessening the hold that negative emotions have on us.

  1. Mindful breathing

Paying close attention to our breathing is an excellent way to improve our sense of wellbeing.  Slow deep breathing reduces the stress hormone, cortisol. The key is to do this regularly, even for a minute,  each day. Additionally, ‘Exhaling longer than you inhale, puts the ventral vagal network into action and promotes the rest and digest response’. *

  1. Consciously engage

To get some of the ‘sound and sight’ social safety cues our brain craves, Dr. Porges proposes we consciously connect with others in video calls. Try these tips:

– Be fully present in the call, rather than multi-tasking

– Notice facial expressions and vocal intonation

– Turn video ‘on’, so you can see other’s faces

– Express and discuss feelings, rather than just talking business.

For those without video call technology, simply visualizing someone you feel safe and connected with, has been shown to have positive impact on the nervous system.

  1. Look for a silver lining

When feeling lonely, reframing your current situation, by taking a different perspective and finding something positive to focus on instead, can help shift our mood. What we focus on sets off a chain reaction of internal chemistry change, causing our brain and body to respond to dominant thoughts as if they were really happening! Thinking about or writing down three things we are grateful for each day, strengthens our capacity to switch from ruminating on the negative, to acknowledging all the positive things we still have to be grateful for in our lives.**

*Porges, S. W., Clinical Neuropsychiatry (2020) 17, 2, 135-138

** Beth A. Le Poire Stephen M. Yoshimura, Communication MonographsVolume 66, 1999 – Issue 1