By Deborah Foulkes-Bert, Ph.D.
Health Care Professional
Many of you live in areas where you have to drive, and sometimes you go on road trips where you expect to encounter rough terrain. If you take care of your vehicle— checking your tires, engine, fluid levels, etc.—getting through that rough terrain will be a lot smoother. Similar to the workings of a car, your body requires care to ensure that you move through life’s challenges successfully, while maintaining healthy relationships. This means understanding the inner workings of your body, how God has “knit you together,” and what you can do to maintain overall wellness.
Our bodies actively respond to the changes in our environment as well as changes in our relationships, sometimes without us being aware of it. The autonomic nervous system is the part of our body that is responsible for maintaining involuntary bodily functions (e.g., heartbeat, food digestion, or perspiring). Neuroception is a term that describes how our autonomic nervous system responds to our environment, letting our bodies know if something is safe or dangerous. When safety is detected, we will engage and connect with others. On the other hand, when neuroception detects danger, our bodies will mobilize to protect and keep us safe. An alternative reaction to danger is immobilization, where we stop functioning.
The lack of predictability about the future, an increase in social isolation, and immobility due to the pandemic have resulted in a diminished sense of safety. A reduced ability to concentrate, feeling numb, a loss of a sense of time (what day is it anyway??), a loss of a sense of purpose, and loss of a sense of self are the experience of many. Together, these experiences are precursors to experiencing the pandemic as trauma. Additionally, these experiences can exacerbate pre-existing behavioral health issues. In fact, mental health professionals have seen an increase in anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and domestic violence—as well as an uptick in the use of psychotropic medication.
The antidote to these experiences is reducing our bodies sense of danger. We can do this by engaging in activity that promotes a sense of safety. The Somatosensory System is the part of the brain that facilitates comfort. This is why we eat chocolate and other “comfort” food when we feel distressed. Healthy self-care also promotes comfort, reduces negative feelings, and increases a sense of safety and certainty.
It is important that you manage your own behavior during this period rather than react. When you manage your feelings well, it promotes a sense of agency and safety. If you feel stuck or physically immobile, it’s time to move; engage in activities like walking, gardening, and playing. If you feel overwhelmed by others, take a break and spend time alone. If you feel alone, increase connection by engaging with someone else. Give someone you live with a hug or ask for one. This may also be a good time to cuddle with your partner or tickle your kids. If things seem uncertain, like you don’t know what to do or when to do it, create a routine. Schedules help to increase predictability. If you have children, this lets them know what to expect. For those who feel anxious, try to focus on the positive and create a Thankfulness Journal. You can also engage in a creative activity that will shift your focus to something you can control. If you feel unsafe, try breathing exercises to regulate your emotions, calm your body, and promote safety. For those who feel numb, meditation and journaling will increase your self-awareness. Lastly, and best, prayer and Scripture reading can ground you and give you a sense of peace like nothing else. Try praying the Scriptures. I suggest Psalm 121.
Our children are precious and need extra consideration. Children can be anxious and ask lots of questions. Shutting them down can increase the risk of developing depression and exacerbate anxiety. Being flexible as a parent may look like taking time to patiently answer questions despite being busy. Flexibility also reduces your need to control the actions of your children and allows them some autonomy. Parents, if you have a difficult time managing your own stress and anxiety, you’re likely to be inflexible and controlling, or worse, overly permissive. Proper self-care keeps you and your children well.
During this season, self-care is not optional if you want to feel and be your best. That means being intentional about self-care. Though you may not know all of the answers during this season, there are things you can actively do to experience health. I encourage you to place your focus on self-care.
Dr. Deborah Foulkes-Bert is a licensed counselor and a member of Christ Church.