We are into the seventh month of a global pandemic. We are nearing the election. Schools are back in session, or they aren’t. There has been a lot of information on how to handle the increased stress and anxiety associated with everything going on.

Most of the talk I see is coming from the side that we are experiencing an activation of the sympathetic nervous system, that keyed up feeling. When this gets activated, we go into “fight or flight mode”. This is when we may feel muscle tension, increased heart rate, increased sweating, increased agitation, etc.

When our fight or flight response is activated, we want calming and relaxing activities, preferably using all of our senses. This is when we want to slow our body’s responses:

• Deep breathing
• Meditation, other mindful activities (coloring, baking, cooking)
• Take a warm bath
• Smell relaxing scents (common examples are lavender and vanilla)
• Gentle stretches or Yoga
• Go on a slow walk
• Listen to soft/soothing music
• Listen to nature sounds
• Drink herbal tea
• Cuddle with pets
• Use weighted blankets (or just snuggle in a blanket)

On the other side, when our parasympathetic nervous system is under activated, we enter the collapse, shut down, or freeze response. I prefer the term collapse response, but I’ve seen all three terms used in various sources.

Essentially, during this response, our heart rate is likely lower, our breathing rate is slower, our body temperature may decrease. We feel numb. We feel checked out. We want to sleep or otherwise hide somewhere. We are likely further isolating ourselves. We don’t see this as a stress response. We often call it depression. Although, what I’ve been hearing is, “This looks like when I was depressed, but feels different.” The “feeling different” is hard to describe.

Looking at this collapse response, I recommend alerting activities. These are the activities that get us moving, engaging, and connecting with our environment and all of our senses:

• Smell alerting scents (commonly peppermint, cinnamon, citrus)
• Take a cool shower, or splash cool water on your face
• Listen to upbeat, faster music
• Get your heart rate up, cardio, faster walks, runs, jumping jacks, dance, stretching and Yoga can be helpful, but with more intention on waking the body vs calming the body
• Chew gum, suck on mints (some people like cinnamon or sour tastes). I personally like flavored seltzer water (no sugar and no caffeine).

We need to experiment and try different things to find what works for us. None of those are going to be easy things to do. Some days will be harder than others. That is OK, that is normal. These are normal reactions and responses to the not normal events that we are living through. Put another way, how we are feeling is to be expected given the not normal events we are experiencing. We need to practice both the relaxation and the alerting activities on a regular basis.  Practicing relaxing and alerting activities often makes it easier to be able to use them when/if our fight/flight or collapse responses are activated. 

In addition to regular practice, I also try to pay attention to what events are likely to trigger a response. With practice I can often predict if I will be activated (fight or flight) or under activated (collapse). Although, if I’m honest, the under activation still surprises me and throws me for a loop more often than I’d like to admit. The next several months have many potential triggers for us, including the election, the fall out of the election, school breaks, holidays that may look incredibly different from previous years, and the continued living through a global pandemic. 

One final thought, that is actually the thought that prompted this blog post, we need to PLAY. We need to have fun. We need to find those ways to connect to joy and pleasure, alone and with each other. This may be the hardest piece of the puzzle as we live in a culture that devalues play and emphasizes productivity. Play can be relaxing and deactivating; it can be energizing and alerting. The more varied the play is, the less likely it is to fall into the numbing zone. Finding the line between helpful coping and numbing is hard, but if we practice a variety of strategies, it is less likely that we need to numb. 

-Erica Kittleson, MSW, LISW-S