Thrive Together presentation addresses importance of a post-COVID reset for overworked nervous systems
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people experienced heightened emotions and the bombardment of unfamiliar inputs. The strain may have pushed them to feel like deer caught in headlights, resulting in nervous system dysregulation, said Licensed Clinical Social Worker Angela Melzer, owner of Minds in Motion in Steamboat Springs.
The grazing deer imagery is an analogy Melzer presented as part of her breakout session titled “Healing Personal and Global Trauma Post Pandemic and How it Relates to Your Nervous System” during the Thrive Together women’s leadership conference on Nov. 4. The conference, presented by Alpine Bank and the Steamboat Springs Chamber at the Steamboat Grand, attracted some 250 attendees.
“Our brains have changed during the pandemic, and we have to do some work to change it back,” Melzer said. “When the brain is registering super novel information, it will err on the side of red or negative rather than safe because we need to keep our species alive.”
But now may be time to learn how to calm the nervous system and go back to the usual resting and digesting mode of a deer grazing in a meadow and only gently observing for safety threats in the peripheral vision. That’s because being in a heightened nervous system state is exhausting.
“It’s expensive toward energy output to always be defensively orienting,” Melzer said
One technique that Melzer recommends to calm the nervous system is to engage in mini self-care check-ins of the body during short breaks that happen throughout the day, such as taking a shower, sitting in the car, transitioning between tasks or driving home from work. During a short bodily check-in, people can slow down their breathing that will, in turn, slow down their heart rate. Check for tense muscles, squeezed palms, tunnel vision or narrowed focus, and negative or racing thoughts, she advised.
“Our nervous systems have changed (during the pandemic), and our emotions will follow. So, for emotions to be in control, we have to work on our nervous system,” Melzer said.
The goal is to not hold on to emotions, in order to prevent the nervous system from building up stress and tension throughout the day. Otherwise, a person can end up feeling worn out each evening.
One common post-pandemic example that might raise tension is going to the grocery store, which during the pandemic created a sense of danger with wearing masks, walking one-way in shopping aisles, standing six feet apart, using hand sanitizer and wondering if a simple trip to buy groceries might make someone dangerously sick. Melzer suggests when shoppers get back to their vehicles to consciously take long and slow breaths to tell the body it is not in danger.
Staying in the fight or flight mode too much of the time from leftover pandemic fears may use up bodily energy and push some people into the more extensive “functional freeze” state. When humans process too much unfamiliar information as dangerous or life threatening, the body can shut down and feel numb, frozen and apathetic, Melzer said.
- Practice mini self-care check-ins during natural transition times during the day to slow breathing, slow heart rate, release tight muscles, and release negative or racing thoughts.
- Scan surroundings to reassure safety, then reorient your body into calm, casual observation rather than defensively oriented mode.
- Notice what other people are doing near you and adjust accordingly, such as back away if necessary and reset your nervous system.
- Retrain your brain that you are safe to be in public settings again but take gradual steps back into social situations if necessary.
Recommended reading: “Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence” by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Some people post-pandemic may feel as though they want to avoid crowds or are more uncomfortable in social situations, but avoidance is not the answer, Melzer said.
“We have to really be aware that even if we don’t want to be social, it is part of species, and it is good for our nervous system,” Melzer said.
However, shorter, gradual and repeated reintroductions into social situations and events may be helpful. And people can briefly scan the social situation and ascertain that they are safe and then let their emotions pass by and their nervous system relax and regulate.
Some individuals may also need to realize that emotions such as irritation or fear may remain heightened by pandemic pressures. Or people who already had anxiety before the pandemic may find that it worsened and they need to try more purposely to rewire their nervous system back to safety mode.
“We might be more emotional after the pandemic, but it’s OK. Just realize it is an emotion or a feeling and let it go. Notice it, but it doesn’t define you,” Melzer said. “Don’t let it tie up your nervous system and effect you throughout the day.”
Scientific “Heart Math” studies show that human bodies can feel the nervous tension of people within six to 10 feet, Melzer said, so some people may need to physically distance themselves from overwhelmed individuals in order to regulate their own nervous system.
“We can feel each other’s stress, the collective trauma,” she said. “Literally our systems can pick up other people’s experiences. It’s really powerful.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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