The 12 Steps to Thrive through this Crisis
How to calm your nervous system, navigate uncertainty, keep your immune system & body-mind strong, and discover peace in the midst of crisis.
By Nada Ashkar, BHum, R. Ac
Mar 29, 2020
You are not alone. Our entire human family right now is as one body, soberly confronting our fragility, profoundly recognizing our interconnectedness. We are united for the first time in our recent human history facing this Pandemic. You are truly not alone.
You are also not alone in your fears and anxieties – the fear of uncertainty, of falling ill, of a loved one falling ill, of the loss of wealth, of the loss of a job, the sense of stability, direction, clarity or the loss of a sense of purpose and meaning. You may be feeling really lonely, sacred, depressed. So many are. You may be crippled with the fear of harm coming to your loved ones (near and far). Many are strongly confronted with fears and questions about death. And the vast majority of us are facing some degree of stress due to the enourmous global and local economic fallout directly affecting us. And all of us to some degree are hurting for our brothers and sisters all over the world who are suffering – those infected, but to a far far greater degree those facing financial devastation, the hardship faced by those with intersecting vulnerabilities (ie. entire populations under political Occupation or genocide, refugee communities, those living with abusers, those with preexisting illnesses, to name a few), and the dangers that our doctors, nurses and frontline workers are facing in their heroic effort to serve humanity in this crisis. We are ALL feeling and hurting in some way, in a multitude of ways, even if we are each processing this reality differently.
So it is natural to be feeling a heightened sense of anxiety and fear right now. It is also normal if you are finding your insecurities, deepest fears, unresolved old pain/wounds, and/or trauma surfacing right now with a greater intensity or frequency than you are used to. Your survival instincts are very likely being activated – which means your nervous system will be on higher alert, signalling every perceived threat in your environment. What’s more, you will mostly likely respond with the survival strategy that will have been activated in early childhood during times of intense hardship or trauma. It is also normal if you are experiencing a vague sense of anxiety or unsettledness that you can’t quite identify. You may be picking up on a collective energy, or on the anxieties and fears of those around you. I want to tell you that if you are feeling any or all of this, it’s ok. It’s ok to be feeling what you are feeling. It doesn’t mean you are weak and it is not a measure of your worth. You are having a human experience and it is a shared experience, however diverse. And, there is a way out – through strategies, self-care and help.
Like everyone else, I am hosting a flood of different emotions and scenarios as I watch the world brought to its knees, and am having to course change as things unfold. I want to share some guidance and tools that I have found very helpful for myself to stay grounded and focused which I have learned over the years from my personal and clinical practice, through what my teachers have taught me, and from what our brothers and sisters on the other side of the world are testifying to having helped them through their much longer time in isolation.
Below are the 12 Steps to Thriving through this Crisis:
- Slow down, allow & identify what you are feeling – Allow your feelings, emotions and fears to come up. Don’t resist. You may be experiencing the stress of this crisis as feelings of sadness, irritability, lack of interest or motivation, loss of appetite, change in sleeping or eating habits, sweating, difficulty concentrating, racing heart, easily feeling overwhelmed…. As often as you can, try and make space to be present with what you are experiencing inside yourself. This means if you feel sad, give yourself some space and time to feel sad and cry if you can. If you are afraid, feel, identify the fear. Whenever you notice a strong emotion, or feel yourself shutting down or shutting out, or loosing equilibrium in another way – PAUSE, listen, and gently notice the discomfort. Notice where in your body you are feeling the discomfort and how it is felt on a physical level (ie. constriction in your chest, tension in your neck or jaw, knots in your stomach…).
- Name it – Identify and name what you are feeling, particularly your fears. Speak it out loud (ie. “I’m really scared right now”, “I don’t feel settled and I don’t know why”, “I am feeling so frustrated”…). It is VERY helpful if you also WRITE IT DOWN. Write down what you are feeling. If you don’t yet exactly know, write that down with descriptive words and self-reflect. You can tell a friend or reach out to your therapist or healers (we are all here for you). Come to the heart of it physically in your body with loving and gentle presence and touch. The key here is AWARENESS – the effect of being present with your feeling/emotion and then naming it has an immediate effect of lessening its charge. If you are finding yourself very disregulated or dissociating (meaning you are feeling overwhelmed, not present, ‘somewhere else’ or checked out, a loss of control and are not able to function, or feeling unshakably fearful/anxious) – then it is best not to dig or focus on the physical sensations by yourself – at this point it is best to self-soothe, self-regulate to the best of your ability and move yourself to another physical space or state (ie. go outside, take a bath) then contact your therapist, trusted spiritual teacher or healers for support. If you don’t have one, ask for recommendations, search around. If you are currently out of work, there are free phone counselling services emerging in this time and you can likely find something in your city (there are also crisis lines). If you are in Toronto or the GTA, feel free to contact me and I can see if I can help you or where to direct you.
- It is also ok to distract yourself now & then, especially if things become too heavy – permit yourself this kind of rest. We all have out limits. But pay attention to this tendency towards distraction – that it not become a constant reaction to your stress as it fundamentally doesn’t improve your situation though can give you respite when done occasionally, consciously.
- Self-soothe – Touch your body to calm your nervous system, especially the areas where you identified discomfort. Breathing deeply as you do this. You can tap, hold or gently massage the acupressure points of the forehead, or gently and slowly stroke your arms, hold your forehead, stroke or gently hold the sides of your neck, rub your feet, rub your chest in circles as you would to comfort a child.
Other ways to self-regulate:
- Shake or rock your body (for 5+mins)
- Conscious deep breathing for several minutes (slowly in 5 seconds, slowly out 5 seconds)
- Sit in silent contemplation of a flower, or a pleasant visualization
- Positive self-talk
- Sit or lie down with a hotwater bottle/bag (if you feel cold) on your belly or back of your neck
- Damp cold towel on your forehead (if you feel hot) can add essential oils (ie. lavender)
- Name 5 things that you can see, or 4 things that you can hear
- Go for a walk outside (walking slowly)
- Slow & gentle yoga
- Take a shower/bath
- Listen to relaxing or uplifting music
- Light incense, bukhoor or apply essential oils
- Do something with your hands – bake, clean, sort, handicrafts
- Pet your cat or dog
- Play with your children
- Reframe – Reframing is the process of orienting yourself into a different perspective – one that opens you up to a more life-affirming and positive mindset. It is a very powerful tool. Life is by nature uncertain, unfolding spontaneously in every moment. However, most people live relatively comfortably with the illusion of certainty, of predictability. And for the most part, our habits and routines themselves provide us with some degree of stability and comfort through repetition. But if we reflect, we will be forced to admit that in fact, life never unfolds as we plan or expect and that the entirety of our lives has always been uncertain. We don’t normally think about that. When we are faced however with a major break in our normal routines and rhythms, of pronounced uncertainty in the form of a crisis, and especially when that uncertainty is amplified by a preexisting tendency to worry and fear the worst, then we can become tormented and disregulated. What can we do? Start with steps 1-3 if needed, then paying attention to your thoughts and what they are telling you about the situation, IDENTIFY YOUR CURRENT PERSPECTIVE. It helps to write it down. Then, challenge your assumptions through self-interaction and questioning. What you simply accepted as fact before, quickly is seen to be assumptions, fears based in belief or one of infinite possibilities. When you question them, they will naturally loose their potency. Recognizing the power of the mind to shift your mood and state, exercise your capacity to reframe, or change your perspective on the situation. You do this by considering other possibilities, more positive possibilities through looking at the situation from different angles. Consider the positive “what ifs”. The truth overwhelmingly lies outside of our fear based projected ideas and beliefs, so we have to investigate our fears and projections, and then decisively reframe our perspective to one that is more spacious, kind and promising. Lastly, put your new reframe to the test while living each day at a time. What you need will come, and what you don’t truly need will go. Life takes care of life, and it always has. Trust this.
- Meditate, pray, center yourself daily – Dedicate some time every day (ideally morning and night) to whatever grounding, centering and clarifying scared practices you have that connect you directly with your inmost Being. Offer up whatever emotions and fears come up for you to the Divine. This is the time to really draw on all what you have learned in this way. You are being strongly called inward in this time, and not just physically, but metaphysically – self-reflect, read sacred scripture, do dhikr, japa, chant your mantras. This is the time to really self assess, taking a wide look at yourself and your life and see what you need to let go of. Crisis is also a blessing – a fertile opportunity for re-centering, transformation and course correction. It can forcefully sharpen our vision of what is essential and what isn’t. Assuming you aren’t entirely lost in blind panic, hoarding and building an alter for your toilet paper. For everyone else who is stocking responsibly (and maybe washing with water), if the spiritual dimension of your life hasn’t been fed in a while, or if this is all new for you and you don’t have any such practices, this is the time to activate, and actively seek and learn, practice and discover. It’s never to late! In a very short time, you can find yourself entering deep states of peace and connection with the Divine. Immediately in fact. The door to the ever present unperturbed Peace at the core of your being is no distance from you and is always and only open. The eye of the storm is always still. And regardless of whether you have a practice already or not, or if you’ve neglected it or not, all of us now can pray. Pray for yourself, your loved ones and for the world. The Holy is with you. The Holy is within you. This crisis is a grand invitation to turn inward. Heed the call. Don’t miss this chance.
- Maintain a routine & practice boundary setting – Create and follow a schedule – alotting time for work, meals, exercise, engaging in your mindfulness practices, checking in with loved ones… Routine itself is very grounding and necessary, especially in times of uncertainty. It also helps to augment your Earth Element – that dimension of your being associated with nurturance, stability, your sense of ‘home’. It will also keep you on course with your highest intentions, projects and visions through heightened productivity. If you are not currently working, task yourself at something that you have always wanted to do – like learn a new language, volunteer in your community, read all those books you have, study something of value to you. Make best use of this time to grow. It is also helpful to create separate spaces in your home for different activities (ie. do not work on your bed). Keeping spaces for distinct activities helps improve your focus and productivity. Many of you are living with your families and having to organize not just your schedules but perhaps your children’s, or navigating around your partner or siblings new work-from-home schedules. This will place a greater demand on you to carve out your special time and space and it may challenge your boundaries. Reflect and recognize what your needs are (physically, emotionally, spiritually) and exercise and express to those you live with what those boundaries and needs are in order to maintain a harmonious home.
- Exercise – Engage in moderate regular exercise (ideally every day in some form or at least 3-5 x per week). Exercise profoundly reduces stress – helps to break down stress hormones circulating in your body, keeps your immune system healthy, and your physical and mental health strong. The importance of moving your body, sweating and strengthening cannot be overstated.
- Healthy immune supporting food & herbs – Many of you are already lamenting the weight you have gained or the weight you have lost which you can’t spare, during this time. Take it easy, however, do your best to nourish your body well as a form of self-love and care by eating a balanced, whole food, varied diet full of fresh vegetables, whole grains, high quality protein, and some fruit. Foods and supplements which are especially helpful for boosting your immune system: most fruits and vegetables (rich in immune boosting flavonoids) especially onions, ginger, garlic, apples, berries, black pepper, lemon (and most citrus fruit), dark leafy greens, broccoli, red bell peppers, papaya, green tea, nuts (ie. almonds, sunflower), celery, parsley, turmeric, curry leaves. It is always best to consult with a holistic medical professional before taking supplements and herbal medicine to find the medicinals that are right for you. With that said, these are generally safe and well known immune boosting medicinals to avoid falling ill: Astragulus, elderberry, Vit C (500mg to 3000mg – increase during acute infection), Zinc (15mg – 30mg daily), Vit D, licorice root, medicinal mushrooms (ie. Reishi). Elderberry, Vit D and medicinal mushrooms should be discontinued if you do develop symptoms of the virus or test positive. There are also many excellent TCM herbalists who are prepared and already treating people who have become infected with the virus using Chinese herbal remedies. Many of these remedies have been developed during historical periods of epidemic and pandemics and are highly effective customized formulations. We have received numerous medical reports and correspondences from TCM Doctors in Wuhan and China broadly who have successfully treated thousands of people using Chinese herbal medicine. Lastly, good immunity is also directly linked to a healthy digestive system. Consuming bone broth, probiotic foods, while avoiding refined sugar, alcohol, excessive coffee and other stimulants, inflammatory foods as well as highly refined/processed foods is necessary to maintain digestive health. Cook fresh often. Eat in moderation. Eating a healthy varied whole food diet not only keeps your immune system strong, but it will also have a supportive effect on your mental health.
- Sleep & rest – Ensure that you are getting to bed early nightly. While some people’s schedules have become very spacious and vacant, others have had a surge in the demand on their time. Whatever your situation, please be sure that you allow for sufficient rest during the day and good sleep at night. This is necessary for a strong immune system and overall health and mental wellbeing. The traditional Chinese medicine wisdom emphasizes the essential need for good sleep to keep our immune systems strong – this is because we need to replenish our Qi, especially our Jing (root life force energy), every night in order to support the defensive function of our immune system. For many of you who work very long hours in high stress environments, this is a rare and much needed opportunity for you to catch up on your rest. So rest.
- Get outside – Spend time every day outside in nature. Go for a walk (check in on your neighbours – especially the elderly). Turn your attention to the young green Spring plants that are sprouting right now, focus on the bird songs, look up and take in the sky. Get fresh air and move your body. Nature itself is medicine. Being in nature calms your nervous system and helps to discharge excess nervous energy through connection with the earth, sky, water and trees.
- Limit media consumption – We are all sensitive and susceptible to the harmful effects of excessive media exposure, however strong we feel we are. The news is powerful and can have a negative effect on our sense of wellbeing, our faith and can narrow and distort our perspective radically. Remain informed but do not indulge in the news, especially if you are finding your anxiety levels and fear increasing.
- Connection – Social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. Stay in regular contact with your family, friends, neighbours and your broader community. Make a point every day to reach out to someone you love. Join an online class, talk or one of the countless live performances popping up on social media platforms. There are many many opportunities to connect with others through the internet – video chats, Netflix parties, Zoom group calls, Facetime, WhatsApp… You can also pick up the phone and call someone the old school way. Remember that this isolation is not forever. Take heart, but also take healthy proactive steps to stay connected. Your heart needs it.
- Do things you enjoy & practice gratitude– Invest time in your passions, joys, hobbies. This is a very rare opportunity for many of us to actually have time to engage in our passions and side projects. Take advantage of it before it’s over. Read those books full of inspiring and life changing content. Practice that art that lights you up that you set aside because you didn’t have time before. Focus on the good. Notice your blessings. Flip the focus of feelings of lack and loss into a recognition of what you DO have and ARE already. Shifting your perspective is fully within your power and can change your state entirely.
This period of outward constriction has within it the auspicious potential the become one of the most transformative, healing and expansive experiences of your life. Make best use of your time and energy and take seriously your self-care. Remember, you are truly not alone. Above, through, within and beyond the clouds of your cognitive perception, your fears, and your pain – God is here. The Supreme Divine is right here, lovingly with you.
And this crisis will pass. Be at peace.