"The Art of Staying Sane in a World in Upheaval"
Using a Time of Crisis as a Chance for Mind-Body Healing and Personal Transformation
Webinar Date: April 2, 2020
Time: 8:00-9:00 PM
Presenter: Kuno Bachbauer, LMF
This webinar has ended. A recording can be found HERE.
A little more than two weeks ago we all felt safe! (More or less).
Suddenly, and seemingly, out of nowhere, “unseen forces” have threatened not only our physical health but also our economic foundation. Almost from one day to the next, our world got taken hostage by an invisible enemy. People sequestered, jobs lost, stocks crashed.
Unfortunately, this enemy has two sides.
“Public Enemy #1”: THE VIRUS
We all were forced to discover quickly how incredibly difficult and complex it is to protect yourselves and our community from this deadly virus! We have learned that “it takes a village” of concerted and coordinated effort to stay safe and to protect each other.
Besides mostly mechanical means such as using alcohol sprays, Clorox wipes, gloves, and “social distancing” we must use very specific medical support when necessary. I am certain that my physician-colleagues at NIHA with their many tools from Integrative and Functional medicine have the COVID-19 medical and preventive aspects covered beautifully. They are the experts! Therefore, I will move on to a specific topic that I am an expert in: How to handle the emotional side of illness.
Because there is a lot of evidence that mind and body are totally inter-connected, I will show you how we can balance our mind and our emotions in very practical ways so that our immune system can work optimally and without extra stress.
“Public Enemy #2”: OUR OWN TRAUMA REACTION TO STRESS
As a “holistic” psychotherapist, I see this other aspect of our novel public enemy as much more dangerous and intrinsic. It concerns the part in our psyche that deals with handling stress coming from difficult and overwhelming situations.
In this article I will attempt to give you helpful hints for mastering the “emotional brain.” I want to offer guidance on how to MASTER THE EMOTIONAL FALLOUT and SPIRITUAL CONSEQUENCES of this collective battle against the unseen enemy of the state: COVID-19. For more in-depth information please consider attending the webinar on April 2.
My hope is that this information will help you be as strong and resilient in the face of this “unseen enemy” as possible! I hope it will help strengthen your immune system by learning to face fear properly, and by teaching you to be more able to handle the “tsunami” of overwhelming feelings and conflicting situations that we may have to face in the next few weeks!
This article is about the part of us that evaluates biological threats and makes us react to them with lightning speed. Unfortunately, this mechanism is meant to last only for a very short period. If it keeps us too long in a defensive position it will make us sick, physically by wearing out our immune system, and emotionally by destroying our resilience. That is what “chronic” illnesses are all about.
This current COVID-19 crisis goes to the “bone marrow” of our survival mechanisms. Even though we are smart enough to send rockets to the moon, the parts of our brain that regulate our response to perceived outside threats are built on rather ancient “neurological circuits” for the sole purpose of survival. Our worst enemy biologically is an “unseen threat”- an enemy you don’t know.
Understanding the Survival Brain
Because there are a variety of ways for understanding the function of the different brain regions, I call this old defensive brain “The Survival Brain.” Most functional aspects of it sit in the “brain stem.” That is an anatomical area of your brain that is deep down where your neck and the base of your head join.
This “survival brain” is largely responsible for your unconscious, “autonomic”, self-regulating functions such as sleep, sex, heart rhythm, food intake, digestion. It is responsible for “rest and restoration” when we feel safe-enough, but also provides your ability to attack, to run away, or to shut down in the face of danger.
The following is a compilation of observations and suggestions that come from my work as a long-time Core Energetics practitioner. Core Energetics is a form of body-centered, “somatic” psychotherapy that allows deep work with emotional trauma. It unifies body, emotions, mind, the will and the spiritual needs of a whole, integrated person.
We Respond Differently: Fight, Flight or Freeze Patterns
You may have noticed that you, your friends, your family and neighbors are now fully “activated” in face of this new danger! You may also observe that in the face of our new public enemy each person has a very SPECIFIC MIX OF DEFENSIVE PATTERNS.
While some persons behave more aggressively (“FIGHT” mode = attack), some others may be more anxious, fearful, or reclusive (“FLIGHT” mode = escape), and you also may find a few of your friends sleeping all-day, immobilized and depressed (“FREEZE” mode = shut down) as a result of this situation of “impending doom.” I have talked about this phenomenon in more details in earlier blogs.
To keep (in scientific actuality much more complex and intricate) things simple, I have grouped my suggestions for coping along the lines of the specific major defensive patterns of FIGHT, FLIGHT and FREEZE that someone may exhibit. To be clear, all THREE BIOLOGICAL DEFENSE PATTERNS have their important place in our lives. In itself, none of them is pathological, or harmful. But if they “get out of hand” in a protracted crisis or in a sustained trauma reaction, you may experience negative social and professional consequences.
Another potentially complicating factor here is the possibility of repeating some traumatic and overwhelming childhood situation. Some of you may remember another NIHA blog I wrote last year, discussing the ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study, which links bad childhood experiences with the predictable occurrence of future chronic illness. A re-experiencing of an earlier traumatizing event can aggravate or weaken your current ability to react to an outside threat such as the COVID-19 virus and the concurrent potential socioeconomic and psychological ramifications of the public response to it - such as feelings abandonment, helplessness, hopelessness, out-of-control, betrayal, etc. from stress and worry about job loss, displacement, or family conflicts while dealing with the situation.
Healthy Solutions to the THREE MAJOR TRAUMA DEFENSE PATTERNS1. “FIGHT” PATTERN (aggressive):
PATTERN: You want to DO something!
You want to be active! You can’t sit still, and the social distancing and self-quarantine are sheer torture for you! You want to go out and “kill the virus”, and …. if you can’t fight with a lion, you may be angry at something else, or fight with your wife or roommate.
SOLUTION: The best suggestion here is: Breathe, and feel your aggression completely, as it is your source of strength, but also embrace your powerlessness and the fact that a virus is ultimately bigger than you.
- Learn to EXHALE
A person in Fight mode is “stuck in inhalation.” It looks like a gasp that gets stuck. Become aware of your breathing. Focus on the exhale. Make it slow, conscious and long.
- Learn to RELEASE YOUR MUSCLES
When a person is in this pattern their entire body gears for attack. You sometimes can see that with clenched fists, tightened muscles, a scowling face, ready to bounce.
- Learn to EXPRESS YOUR EMOTIONS
Some of the methods to release that much tension are actually making angry faces, air boxing, hitting pillows, twisting towels and screaming your heart out. Crying and laughing are also great forms of release.
- Learn to MEDITATE and LEARN HOW TO MASTER YOUR EMOTIONS
Meditation is not so much a technique, but a state of self-awareness. A state of presence. Whatever Eastern or Western techniques you use, meditation is a tool to switch away from the “Survival Brain” and activate higher brain functions that allow you to observe a situation objectively. You become a witness. You become somebody that can harness the reactive survival brain. Because it allows you to make conscious, “non-reactive” higher choices in the face of a scary or conflicting situation, I call this the “Choosing Brain”.
- Lean to BALANCE your LIFESTYLE
Eat right. Sleep enough. Drink enough water. Exercise more. Pick the right friends. Make healthy choices right now.
- MAKE CONSCIOUS CONNECTIONS with others!
Together we are strong! There is a huge part of your brain that is dedicated to make connections with others. The Limbic system, combined with the Polyvagal system and the Pre-frontal Cortex, is the ultimate survival mechanism! This is because as a tribe, as a group, or in a team we are stronger, smarter, more resourceful and capable to defend ourselves as a species! The problem here is that we must learn be coherent. We must actively work on being unified as a family, unite as a country and as a world for receiving the maximum healing effects from our “Connecting Brain.”2. “FLIGHT” PATTERN (anxious-fearful):
PATTERN: You want to RUN FROM something!
The problem is that you usually can’t run away! You are stuck. Just like the whole world is stuck with this virus alert right now. You worry for yourself and want to protect and save your loved ones. You are generating every-increasing visions of scary and devastating things and develop an intricate system of defense. In the process, you have bought all the toilet paper, face masks, and hand sanitizers available…and you are still as anxious as before.
SOLUTION: The best suggestion here is: Breathe, and feel your fear completely, including the part inside you that says that you can’t escape the situation.
- Learn to EXHALE
A person in Flight mode is “stuck in inhalation” and “can’t run away”. Most of the suggestions for FIGHT mode (above) apply here as well, such as become aware of your breathing. Focus on the exhale and feel. Make the exhale slow, conscious and long.
- Learn to RELEASE YOUR MUSCLES
When a person is in this pattern of “being stuck and not able to run away,” they have a very high level of muscular tension that cannot get released. For this person I suggest exercises that have to do with running-in-place, laying down and kicking as if you run on a mattress, and my favorite: shaking and tremoring exercises. Trauma Release Exercises (“TRE” - by David Bercelli, PhD) and Osho Kundalini Meditation (there are many demos on YouTube - including one by me.)
- Learn to MEDITATE and EMBRACE YOUR DIFFICULT FEELINGS
As I said above, meditation is not so much a technique, but a state of self-awareness. A state of presence. It is also a wonderful tool to learn to tolerate and embrace “un-feelable feelings.” This helps for both physical and emotional pain. It is a very important skill for trauma recovery. If you become a master of this method, you will find yourself less reactive and more balanced in just about any situation in life. Your “Choosing Brain” will make conscious, “non-reactive” higher choices and help you stay ahead of the game.
- Lean to BALANCE your LIFESTYLE
Eat right. Sleep enough. Drink enough water. Exercise more. Pick the right friends.
- MAKE MORE CONSCIUOUS CONNECTIONS with others!
Together we are strong! See above! And I repeat: We must actively work on being unified as a family, a country and as a world for receiving the maximum healing effects from our “Connecting Brain.”
3. “FREEZE” PATTERN (shutdown-numb):
PATTERN: You want to SHUT DOWN, GIVE UP or NUMB OUT
This can happen if you have a life-long pattern of under-charge. You may have never felt quite strong enough to master the world, to reach out for what you really want. To go for what is yours. Maybe because you had a deficit in nurturing early on, or your system was deeply traumatized and overwhelmed by a parent. In any case, you somehow learned that effort is hopeless, and collapse is useful. If you are a person in “Freeze” mode, you are “stuck in exhalation”. Your attitude is “collapsed” and “given up”. Your defensive patterns are exactly opposite to the Fight/Flight patterns we have discussed above, because you feel so overwhelmed inside that attacking your enemy or running away is just not an option. Instead, you “play dead”, give up, collapse, disappear or simply go numb! So instead of exhaling you need to charge-up by taking in more air.
SOLUTION: The best suggestion here is: Breathe, feel your terror and claim your competence anyway, challenging the part that says that you can’t meet this situation.
- Learn to INHALE
You will need to get up and going to face the world - even if it is scary, or if it feels futile. It starts with a first breath! Then do any physical aerobic exercise you have available. You will know that you are “on the way up” when you first get anxious and then even get angry at somebody!
- Learn to CHARGE YOUR MUSCLES
When a person is collapsed, they cannot tolerate a very high level of muscular tension. They need to build a tolerance for exertion. For this person I suggest exercises that have to do with running-in-place, laying down and kicking on a mattress as if you run, but with one big difference: You want to build energetic stamina, so getting slightly out of breath will build your capacity for endurance, inner strength and emotional resilience.
- Learn to MEDITATE & STREGTHEN YOUR WILL
As I said above, meditation is a wonderful tool to learn to tolerate and embrace “un-feelable feelings.” The person in “Freeze” mode has had so many un-feelable, overwhelming feelings that they have shut down and numbed out. That was their only choice. It is very important skill for trauma recovery of the person in “Freeze” mode to learn meditation. It helps to strengthen their energetic system and build ones “will”. Your will is the place inside that helps you make conscious choices and ACT on them. Your will allows you to move forward in life, choose hope over fear, take emotional risks, and actively start making higher choices to face life – life as it is – in its full glory, its pleasure, and also all its scariness and pain.
- Lean to BALANCE your LIFESTYLE
As above. Eat right. Sleep enough. Drink enough water. Exercise more. Pick the right friends.
- DARE TO MAKE MANY MORE CONSCIOUS CONNECTIONS with others!
If you are a participant of the “Freeze” mode it is even more important that you practice connecting - even it may feel really hard. Because you had very early childhood trauma, it will be hard to trust and rely on other people. But: Together we are strong! And I repeat again: We must actively work on being unified as a family, a country and as a world for receiving the maximum healing effects from our “Connecting Brain.”
May you be well, healthy, and calm in this challenging, but also hopefully transformational time!
Warmly, Kuno Bachbauer
Kuno Bachbauer, LMFT, Dr. med. (Austria), has a life-long interest in personal growth, mind-body medicine, and understanding the neuro-biology of emotion and spiritual transformation. He practices Core Energetics at CoreConstellations Center in Rockville, MD., has a counseling office at NIHA, and teaches internationally.