by Lucy Baxter from Blue Sky – providing Solution Focused Hypnotherapy at TCHP
‘When you can’t control what’s happening, challenge yourself to control the way you respond to what’s happening. That’s where your power is.’
At the time of typing this I am listening to my son in the background well into his second hour playing Fortnite on the X-Box. Today, that is ok. Because today we are in lockdown and limited to one walk a day. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and I honestly don’t have the capacity to be a Butlins Red Coat and entertain the troops for a minimum of ten hours a day.
He’s struggling. Struggling with the change to his daily routine. Struggling with the anxiety surrounding getting ill or with his family getting ill. He’s struggling to keep motivated, he’s waking up in the night, and he’s not at all happy about not being able to get to the shops for the foreseeable future.
I know exactly how he feels.
I told him, ‘Nothing’s actually changed, darling.’ He replied, ‘The whole world’s changed!’ and he’s right. We have hope that this global pandemic will bring positive change in its wake. Positive changes not only to our environment, our world, but also positive changes to humanity. How we treat each other, how we prioritise our lives, what and who we consider important.
Change though, even positive change, is hard. Even small changes are difficult; I wobble when someone cancels lunch at the last minute, but big changes like the ones we’re experiencing now; they’re really hard. Really, really hard.
The good news is that we can change our thinking in order to help us cope better with the situation we’re in. We can’t change or control what’s happening in the world at the moment, but we can change our response to it.
When we are faced with danger, the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ part of our brain known as the amygdala takes over. The amygdala, a part of our primitive brain, helps us respond to situations or stimuli that threaten us by increasing the production of stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. This in turn creates the physical symptoms we often experience with stress such as butterflies, sweaty palms, nausea, racing heart etc.
It is worth noting that cortisol also weakens our immune system. When we are in that ‘fight/flight/freeze’ mode, our body is busy using all of our energy trying to keep us alive, and that loss of energy makes our body weaker and more vulnerable to illness.
Our primitive brain is programmed to keep us safe. When we believe we are in trouble, it starts to take over, reducing our intellectual control, and we are then actively encouraged to think negatively; to prepare for the worst case scenario. The more we think negatively, the more we spend time ensconced in our primitive brain, and thus we enter in to a loop of negative, unhelpful feelings.
Our primitive brain is only able to operate within the parameters of anger, anxiety and/or depression. It’s not surprising that most of us are feeling anxiety in this situation when our primitive brain is being constantly bombarded with, frankly, terrifying messages from the news, social media, and everywhere we look. This is all on top of any anxiety we might have been experiencing anyway; before COVID-19, social distancing, and lockdown.
So, whilst the amygdala obviously serves a very important role in terms of our survival, when the worry starts to affect how we are functioning on a day-to-day basis, it’s time to think about working to change that.
Imagine, for a second, that your brain is a bucket. Every negative thought we have is converted in to anxiety and stored in that bucket. We can negatively forecast as well; what is going to happen? Will I stay well? What about my finances? My business? My family? And we can negatively retrospect; why didn’t I bulk-buy two months ago? Why haven’t I kept myself more healthy? Why didn’t I appreciate things more before this?
All of these negative thoughts fill up your ‘bucket’ until it overflows with anxiety, depression and/or anger.
Fortunately, we have a natural way of emptying that bucket of stress, and that is done during a period of our sleep cycle known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
REM sleep allows us to rerun the events of the day and move the emotional, uncomfortable and unhelpful messages in to a properly processed narrative that is stored in our intellectual brain; an area reserved for more positive, rational, and helpful thought.
During REM sleep our brain is working harder than our beating heart and so that’s why often, when there’s just too much worry to process, we can wake up in the night and find ourselves unable to get back to sleep again. Similarly, REM sleep is restricted to about 20% of our sleep cycle, and so even if we sleep well, we can still wake up in the morning with our bucket already half full.
Importantly, we have the power to change our thinking, to reduce the amount we put in to our bucket. We can reframe our current, negative thinking into thoughts that are more conducive to feeling calm again, and more in control.
Observe how you are talking to yourself about things. Question whether you are worrying, whether you can do anything about it, can you take any small, manageable steps to help yourself feel better now, and if you can’t, are you able to let it go?
I have listed some strategies below that, when practiced regularly, will create new neural pathways in your brain, reframe your thinking and help you to feel better.
Alongside the amygdala, there’s another primitive part of our brains called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for storing our behavioural patterns and responses. It isn’t able to discern whether a previous response to a situation was appropriate or not. All it understands is that you survived the experience and so you should repeat the response if faced with the same or a similar situation again.
Visualisation is a really important tool in creating new patterns for your brain to match to. Spend some time, as often as you can, visualising yourself looking and feeling calm, strong, positive and healthy. Visualise this in as much detail as you can: what would you be wearing if you felt less anxiety, more strength (physically and mentally), and were feeling happier? Would you holding yourself differently? What would you be doing differently if the anxiety had gone? Even if you don’t believe the visual is possible at the moment, if you think it enough, it will be stored as a new pattern to match to instead of the old, negative one.
When you exercise (even two minutes of star jumps, and most definitely Joe Wicks) your brain thinks that you have ‘flown’ and that danger has past, so it puts you back in to your parasympathetic nervous system (and back to using the logical part of your brain rather than the primative) which is where we want to be in order to feel rational and calm.
If you find yourself thinking the same negative, worrying thoughts over and over again, start to notice it happening. Once you start noticing, you can then start to replace the thinking with a positive mantra that works for you. Some examples would be:
Again, even if you don’t believe your mantras initially, your brain is listening and will start to pattern-match to the new, positive thoughts.
Use a mindfulness app (such as Headspace) or visit our website to download our relaxation hypnosis.
Guided relaxation is known to boost the release of endorphins (our happy chemicals), and our immune systems too.
Practise controlled breathing as often as you can, but particularly when you’re feeling anxious. Sit quietly and breathe in for the count of 7, pause, then breathe out for the count of 11.
Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system to promote a state of calmness.
Its sounds like a cliché, but start looking out for the good parts of your day, however small. When you get in to bed at night, challenge yourself to recall at least three of these good moments. By doing this regularly, we are literally exercising our intellectual brain, making it bigger, stronger and more in charge of our thinking.
Now is a great time to really look after ourselves. If you have time on your hands, or if you’re working hard and have some downtime, try and spend it doing things you want to do and not what you feel you ought to. Have a bath, call a friend, read a good book. Again, doing things we enjoy creates serotonin and makes us feel good.
We’ve already looked at the importance of REM sleep in processing our worries. Having a healthy, consistent bedtime and practising good sleep hygiene is essential in the management of anxiety. Remember, the less negative thinking, the less anxiety in your ‘bucket’, the less to process, and so the better the quality of your sleep. If insomnia is a problem then apply the information above. Start to replace your ‘I have insomnia’ thoughts with ‘I am ready to sleep’ mantras, and listen to our download or an alternative guided meditation.
If you find watching the news or looking at social media is increasing your anxiety then impose some healthy limits. If you really want to know the latest information then search for science-based articles from trusted platforms and sources and maintain a healthy limit on this too.
This is not for ever. We all process things differently. At the moment we’re in the midst of a lockdown and things are scary and unpredictable, but it will pass. We will feel safe, free and reconnected again in the future. It will happen.
However you are feeling about life at the moment, it’s ok. Everyone is different but we’re all doing the best we can in a very strange and difficult situation.
To quote the author Matt Haig, ‘These are not normal times so don’t expect to have normal expectations of yourself. Don’t beat yourself up over how you work from home or homeschool. We are in the middle of a global crisis. Allow yourself to just exist rather than achieve.’
Finally, If you are struggling with your mental health, support is always available. We are offering sessions via Zoom at a reduced rate during this period of lockdown. The Samaritans operate 365 days a year and are contactable on 116 123
Lucy Baxter is a qualified Solutions Focused Clinical Hypnotherapist and co-founder of Blue Sky Hypnotherapy
Written by Lucy Baxter DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP and Emma Wilde DipSFH, AfSFH-reg, SFBT(Hyp), MNCP