The results of the US presidential election has set off a mass wave of disappointment, sadness, grief, anger, anxiety, fear and panic. It is clear that people will need time to process these emotions.
As someone who once struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and panic attacks, I would like to share some advice on managing the fight-flight-freeze response to help people avoid spiraling into hopelessness and helplessness.
When people feel threatened, like their life is in danger, a structure in the brain called the amygdala goes on red alert and turns on the stress cascade. This causes high levels of cortisol and adrenaline to get pumped throughout the body, bringing the body into fight-flight mode. In cases where the threat is accompanied by feelings of helplessness, the body may go into a more extreme state of stress called the freeze response. Signs of fight-flight-freeze includes feeling sick in the stomach, tension, insomnia, fear, anxiety, anger, drained of energy, helplessness, and hopelessness. It is important to create a compassionate space inside to acknowledge these feelings and process them, rather than suppress or deny them.
During times of heightened stress, there is also a risk that as we worry, the voice in our head may weave exaggerated stories about how bad the situation can get. These internal narrations often end up amplifying negative emotions and intensifying the fight-flight-freeze response. If we have not yet trained our minds using meditation and mindfulness techniques, we tend to believe everything our internal narrator says. This can get us so completely lost in worst-case scenarios of our imagination, that we plunge deeper and deeper into anxiety, and into a full-blown amygdala hijack. When this happens, blood flow to our pre-frontal cortex is reduced, thus impairing our ability to process information and see a bigger picture. Our perception becomes distorted such that we compulsively hone in on signs of danger and we feel as if we are all alone, surrounded by enemies rather than friends. Worse, we start to create self-fulfilling prophecies. We are then set up internally for a full-on panic attack.
I hope it is self-evident that being in this extreme state of stress for long periods of time is not good for anyone’s health nor is it conducive to finding a way to move forward. The fact that worrying has no benefit in crisis is illustrated by this quote from the Dalai Lama who has dealt with his share of adversity without developing PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
“If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
When faced with an enduring long-term challenge, we actually need as much of our prefrontal cortex as possible to be “online” so we can learn, process information, listen to ideas, connect with others, and develop an effective solution. We cannot do that if our amygdala is on red alert. So the key to resilience is calming the amygdala and restoring blood flow to our prefrontal cortex.
Here are 10 suggestions for calming the amygdala and restoring your brain:
1. Go for a jog or some form of aerobic exercise so your body consumes the cortisol and adrenaline (please keep the intensity within your normal workout routine, so you don’t over-stress your body).
2. Do yoga or deep breathing exercises to activate the parasympathetic nervous system
3. Turn on the tend-and-befriend response: connect with people you love, hug and support each other.
4. Savor and appreciate the good things in your life.
5. Perform an act of kindness to affirm the power you have to make a difference and help others.
6. Do a compassion / loving kindness meditation (you can try Calm Clarity’s version here).
7. Read about inspiring people who overcame adversity.
8. Knowledge is empowering: educate yourself about how the system works and what actions can be taken to advocate for what you believe in.
9. Recommit to your values and role modeling the change you want to see in the world.
10. Practice self-care. Be kind and nurturing to yourself.