(April 15, 2020) I can’t speak about grief & emotional regulation practices without being vulnerable about my own emotional landscape.
My spouse & I spent several days in the last several weeks considering if we needed to go to the emergency room. (See an overview of my journey on Twitter and a webpage on what herbs, drugs and healing therapies helped me make my body less habitable for the virus). I ultimately ended up needing supplemental oxygen because my blood oxygen dropped to low 80s. However, in early days we often wondered, “Did we really need to go to ER or am I just anxious?”
We are both climate scientists. I was a microbiologist and molecular biologist before I started working on climate. We were doing everything to objectively respond to the situation we were in. Collect data. Research symptoms, drugs & herbs. Act swiftly. Stay positive. But fears and anxiety were very real.
A key question at some points was “I know breathing feels hard but is it happening because of fear and anxiety or is it ’cause of the virus?” But we can’t answer these question without knowing what are our symptoms without anxiety?
Even if we aren’t sick ourselves, most people are experiencing anxiety because of our current situation. Whenever or wherever we have been physically or psychologically trapped in the past, those memories are resurfacing and stirring in our subconscious.
Emotional regulation is a very crucial medical need today.
In these 2.5 weeks, it has been a blessing for me to be able to tap into emotional regulation and grieving practices that I have learnt & taught over the past seven years as a Zen priest, meditation teacher and grief ritual leader.
Whenever I noticed my fears or the question “is it anxiety or virus?”, I started a series of five practices beginning with slowing down. The heart of this process below is learning to slow down enough to observe our own body sensations and to access a truly safe memory.
It is important to remember that these practices are not for reaching “Buddhist Enlightenment” but for relaxation of our human heart-minds that are often in fight, flight or freeze modes of operation.
1. Grounding and slowing down: The first step one should take before beginning any practice to calm anxiety is slowing down. For example, long exhalations are the single most effective ways to control panic attacks and slow our nervous system. When I could, I would take at least ten long mindful breaths. Inhale to the count of 4 to 8, hold to the count of 2 to 5, exhale to the count of 4 to 12, hold again as you count 2 to 5 before inhaling again.
What if deep breathing is hard: When I couldn’t do deep breaths (due to my cough or any other reason), I either asked my partner to hold my hand or worked with other senses. If you have trouble breathing deep for any reason, you can take refuge in seeing, hearing, smelling, touching or tasting to slow down.
One can put your phone behind and take a walk for half an hour. Observe a plant/tree. If you can’t go out, describe colors in your room. Touch objects, feel their texture and describe their shapes to yourself. One by one. In detail. Many other mindfulness practices can slow down our anxious “racing-thoughts” mind and bring us closer to a point where we can track our sensations and access our safe image.
Once one is grounded, please begin to notice different sensations within the body. Where does it feel cool or warm? Is there a sense of tightness, vibration or fluttering? Does it feel spacious around your tongue? We can feel sensations that arise in the body simply because we have a solid support under/behind our back. Try to distinguish between sensations that are uncomfortable vs those that are pleasant or neutral. Focus on sensations that are pleasant/soft/gentle or neutral.
2. Accessing safe images: This is the most important step. Research on trauma shows that we are not anxious because of painful emptions or thoughts themselves but rather because of *the cycle of hard sensations within our body.*
Imagining in detail the faces/words or gestures of loving pets, kind people in our lives, our hobbies, spiritual beliefs and/or wise people in movies or healing places we have experienced calms us. These “safe” images change hard sensations in our body. No matter what is happening, we can all access a image of relative safety. When you imagine these “safe” images, allow yourself to sense your own body as completely as you can. Make one of these images 3-dimensional by adding sounds, smells, colors or taste to this one image.
Can you sense your heartbeat, the rhythm and sound of your breath or rise and fall of your bosom, weight of your hand and/or any specific sensations in the body as you relive safe memories? Once again, focus on those sensations in the body that feel pleasant or neutral. The more vividly we remember a safe image and feel it in our body, the calmer and more empowered we feel.
3. Accessing grief: Why and how? When I remember people or places who make me feel safe in my body and I calm down a bit, sometimes fears comes back “My calming image is of my best friend in school but I’m afraid that today she doesn’t have health insurance”. Or….thinking of smell or taste of my mother’s cooking grounds me but I’m sad because I can’t travel to India to my mother and am worried there aren’t enough ventilators in India to treat Indians now if they get severely sick.
So allowing grief is very important for me. I take the time to feel the profound love of people or places that made me feel safe in my body and grieve the fears of losing love and safety. If I start feeling too anxious because of these complications associated with my “safe image”, I can always go back to grounding and tracking easy/neutral/pleasant sensations in the body.
4. Entering grief more deeply? Years of doing grief rituals had made it to me clear that grief is nothing but love. However, I cannot access this grief-love without slowing down. When I begin to touch this grief-love, I sing or hum to deepen my entry into grieving process.
We all have songs that break our hearts. Pick one from John Prine. A sad Bollywood song. Blues. Hymns.
I allow tears, loud belly sounds or movement when I begin to well up. I am used to tapping into grief by myself but sometimes it is important to do this with friends we trust. Online video chat can help if you live alone.
5. Accessing clarity and courage: Yes, outside circumstances haven’t changed. Your body might still have a fever. But touching grief-love decreases the burden on our psyche. Accessing love, clarifies our next steps. I find strength to do the next appropriate thing. Calling a doctor. Ordering oxygen. Asking for help. Reaching out to another sick colleague.
An overview of steps
All we need to do is slow down. Turn off news. Try to walk slowly or rock the body if you can’t be fully still. Then breath.
When slow enough, please invite images of ease, safety and connection. Invite the dance of watching ease become grief. Grief being love. Love will become strength and give some clarity. You have strength of your ancestors in your bones. You can do it.
I have gone through the cycles many times in the past three weeks. Sometimes my symptoms were indeed due to the virus but sometimes symptoms subsided when I took care of the anxiety.
Perhaps some of you would try the ideas outlined above and let me know if these practices brought you any respite from anxiety?
(All of these steps above might seem too good to be effective but are results of years of trauma research, and there is an art to doing them well. Skilled and kind facilitators can be very helpful).
— Kritee (Kanko)