Brain safety: Reduce time spent in COVID-19 fight or flight mode
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Angela Melzer, Neuro-based Psychotherapist and founder of Minds in Motion, said in the first several weeks of the pandemic, her group of nine practitioners saw a lot of cancellations. A lot of people were in shock mode, she noted, and turned inward.
But over the last several weeks, Melzer said she and her colleagues saw a “pretty large shift.”
That shock — that adrenalin rush of “we can hunker down and fight this” — is wearing off, she said. “Reality is starting to settle in.”
Melzer said the problems people are having are becoming more acute. Those include domestic issues between spouses and partners, “a lot more suicidal ideation because of isolation, and a rise in people who are trying to stay sober really struggling with their recovery.”
People are panicked about finances, she said, a fact not helped by things like the crashing of the Small Business Administration website more than a week ago. When the promise of a loan doesn’t manifest, it can have have a significant psychological impact.
Melzer’s expertise and approach focuses on the nervous system. The pandemic has brought an entirely new challenge to our nervous systems, she explained. Our main nervous system’s job is to identify one of two modes: safe or not safe. When she works with clients, she is often helping them prevent their brains from triggering false alarms and helping guide their nervous systems back to safe mode.
When our system becomes panicked, Melzer explained, it goes into fight or flight mode, often described as anxiety. And right now, that response is entirely accurate and appropriate, she said. There is a real threat, and our nervous systems are correct in identifying that.
“This is your nervous system being correct,” she said. “And you can honor that, but you can also care for it at the same time.”
Part of caring for your nervous system, she said, means paying attention to all of the information coming into your brain. There are bits of information about the legitimate physical threat, but there is also information that can help us feel safe.
It is important to pay attention to the safe because the unsafe information tends to take on more importance and weight, she said.
There are outside factors that trigger the nervous system, like seeing people in masks, Melzer said, as well as internal thoughts. Someone coughing in your face can trigger fight or flight, as can the thought of “How am I going to pay my mortgage?”
But we aren’t meant to be in fight or flight mode for long periods of time, she said. Our nervous systems are supposed to respond, and then get out of the situation. Too much time in flight or fight mode can have negative impacts on both our brains and bodies.
While fight and flight are both actions, there is a freeze mode that people can go into when they feel they can’t do either. That freeze state of “checking out” or being apathetic or numb can often present the highest risk in terms of a danger zone for suicide.
For both our mental and physical health, Melzer said it is important to help guide our nervous systems back to a place of rest and digest. The fight or flight mode takes a lot of energy, and helping our brains rest contributes to a stronger immune system, better sleep, better digestion — and allowing that energy to be put toward maintaining our health and protecting our bodies.
The need for survival — whether the threat is real or imagined — triggers the sympathetic nervous system. “Which you need,” explains experts at the Cleveland Clinic, “to keep you alive when true danger is detected.” But you also need that parasympathetic nervous system “to restore and relax you, so that your body can run business as usual.”
Melzer’s advice includes paying attention to our thoughts, and while acknowledging the appropriateness of the fight or flight mode, also being mindful of not being in that mode all of the time. There are safe moments in this, she said. As you consume information, be picky and just like your diet, “be smart about what you put in your brain.”
Mindfulness practice can help us spend more time in a place our brain feels safe, Melzer said, and remind us that in this moment, we are okay.
“The fight or flight response is an important reaction that we all have and need, but it’s meant for true stress and danger,” according to the Cleveland Clinic experts. “Everyone is going to have it in varying degrees for different reasons, but learning to slow down, be aware and conceptualize what’s actually happening can help you regain control.”
Melzer encourages her clients to reach out to others, especially when their bodies are telling them they want to be alone. When you least feel like reaching out, that is when you most need to reach out.
And reach out to different groups, she advises, whether that is family, college friends or your tennis group. Make sure you get to see other people’s faces, she said, we need to see faces, and see each other’s eyes and smiles. “The phone isn’t enough.”
And, while adhering to the public health orders, get outside, she advises.
When it comes to things like financial fears, Melzer said she advises clients to take things one day at a time, remember they are not alone and educate themselves on available resources.
One new resource from Minds in Motion are weekly support groups facilitated by licensed therapists and designed to specifically address navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Living in the current unfamiliar reality and living in the uncertainty of what to expect in life can be frightening and unsettling. The impact and consequences of COVID-19 have shaken the foundation we used to rely upon for knowing what comes next and how to move forward,” according to the Minds in Motion website.
The sessions are designed to help participants process feelings and develop resiliency, connect to others, create self-care plans, introduce mindfulness practices, and connect to other resources.
The groups meet on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, each with a different therapist.
In an effort to accommodate all budgets, the hour-long sessions are being offered for $20 each. To sign up or for more information, go to mindsinmotionco.com/covid-19-support-services or call 970-761-2249.
Melzer noted this is also good time to use the three free therapy sessions people may have through their Employee Assistance Program, as well as local resources like REPS (Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicides) and MindSprings Health.
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