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Rewiring the Brain for Calm

“I’m really angry, and I’m really scared,” a client told me recently. She had every reason to be. Her illness was constantly flaring. She was worried about her job where her hours had been cut, and her father was in a high-risk group for COVID-19 — but didn’t take it seriously. He was going out and not taking any precautions. It was a complicated situation with real dangers.

“But,” I reminded her, “concentrating on all the things that are scaring you only harms your body and mind further.”

“So what’s my alternative?” she asked.

When I’m with a client I think a lot about the nervous system. We each have beautifully intricate wiring that is constantly feeding information from our bodies to our brain. Some researchers have estimated that 80 percent of the pathways go from body to brain, and only 20 percent go from brain to the body.

We are receiving information all the time. But we tend to be fairly focused about what we pay attention to. Our nervous systems evolved to constantly scan for danger, and to help us find ways to connect and feel safe. We tend to give much more attention to what scares us than to what helps us feel safe. Again, this is part of the wiring.

But if we are going to get through this time, we need to pay more attention to how we can help ourselves feel safe.

How to Spot Safety Signals

How do we scan for cues of safety? What are those cues, and how do we notice them?

I asked my client about that. “In the midst of all these worrisome things, what is helping you feel safe and grounded?”

She had to consider that for a few minutes. She responded, “I feel safe when I’m outside in my backyard. When I look into the trees and hear the birds. It’s peaceful and green and calm.”

I asked her to imagine she was in that space and to tell me how her body felt. She could experience the calm in the lessening of the tension in her face and shoulders.

I asked her for another place or indication of safety.

“The children next door,” she said. “I don’t have children. When I see them run out and play I can feel their joy.”

When asked, my other clients have responded with different cues. A favorite movie, music, their pet, a memory of a beloved place, holding the hand of someone they love — there are many cues of safety, and they are as unique as you are.

Safety Is Not a Luxury

Helping ourselves feel that safety in this time of uncertainty and real danger from the coronavirus is not a luxury. Every moment that we marinate in fear — no matter how justified — is a dollop of energy we take from our system, which means we have fewer and fewer reserves to cope. Every cue of safety we allow ourselves to experience replenishes our energy and our reserves to deal with the actual challenges that arise.

Our marvelous nervous systems are designed to help us. Treat yours with respect: Don’t blow its circuits with worry and anxiety. Find ways to slow down, calm, and restore. You will feel the dividends.

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