6 psychologist-approved hacks for calming your nervous system, and mind

If you’re suffering from corona-anxiety, you’re not alone.  These six practical and expert tricks will help you combat your panic. 

If you’re feeling more anxious than usual these days due to COVID-19, you are not alone. The coronavirus pandemic has us all facing more stress and uncertainty than usual. There are many practical ideas being shared about preventing the spread of COVID-19 but little discussion about what to do with our feelings of discomfort during this time.

It is important to know that if you are feeling at all worried, anxious or overwhelmed about COVID-19 then this means your body is doing exactly what it is meant to be doing to keep you safe.

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There are things we can do to feel that we are in control of these feelings, rather than those feelings being in control of us – this is known as regulating the nervous system. Learning to activate the vagus nerve can help to put the brakes on when we feel worried, stressed, overwhelmed or panicked.

It’s important to remember that the goal of regulation is not to feel relaxed, but to feel connected, so that when we there is chaos around us, we can find our own internal sense of safety, which we can take with us wherever we go. Let’s explore some ways that we can stay regulated during this time.

The following list is based on the work of Stephen Porges and Polyvagal Theory, a topic which merits its own article. However, it makes use of our understanding of the vagus nerve, which has a key role in the regulation of the nervous system that our bodies use to feel relaxed and safe.

1. Take long, deep breaths

Let’s all take a deep breath together now. Make sure to lengthen your exhale breath to begin with to really activate the vagus nerve. You could try breathing in for two, breathing out for four.

When you start to notice your shoulders dropping and your breath deepening, you can start to inhale and exhale in equal counts, for example breathing in for two, breathing out for two.

2. Splash cold water on your face

Splash cold water from the bottom of your chin up to the top of your head. The cold temperature is effective in stimulating the vagus nerve. You could even have a cold shower if you are feeling particularly overwhelmed or drink an ice cold glass of water.

3. Gargle

The vagus nerve activates the muscles in the back of the throat that allow you to gargle. When you gargle these muscles are contracted, which activates the vagus nerve and stimulate the gastrointestinal tract.

Can’t gargle? Try humming, chanting or singing really loudly to your favourite song.

4. Butterfly hug

Give yourself a butterfly hug. You can do this by wrapping your arms around yourself in a nice tight hug, that each hand touches the shoulder. You can then start to move your hands like the wings of a butterfly, rubbing your hands up and down your arms

5. Dance

Moving your body in any way is a very effective way to activate the vagus nerve and creates a feeling of safety within your nervous system. A family dance party in the lounge room could be a great way to start the day!

6. Name and drain

Naming your experience out loud, such as “I’m feeling scared/confused/overwhelmed” is a great way to provide a sense of safety to your nervous system.

You may be experiencing many different feelings at the moment. Some of those feelings may include a sense of overwhelm, stress, anxiety, confusion, depression or maybe even panic.

It is important to acknowledge these feelings, as they are your body’s way of letting you know that there is a threat in the environment.

You do not have to be controlled by these feelings however, and through the above techniques you can start to feel able to regulate your nervous system, which will help to regulate those around you.

Anna Fasolo is one of Australia’s leading psychotherapists, mum and co-owner/founder of The Peninsula Nest, a brand-new hub and wellness centre for mums on the Mornington Peninsula. Follow her on Instagram or Facebook.

More essential coronavirus reading:

Read up on what the government lockdown means for you, understand why Aussie doctors are up arms, be aware of the ‘hidden symptom’ of COVID-19 carriers, prepare yourself for the long-term mental health effects of the pandemic, get your sweat on at home with these free online workouts before reviving your over-washed hands with this DIY balm, and then console yourself with these unexpected joys.