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That Advice on Calming Yourself Isn't Working, Is It?

We are used to calming ourselves via control and escape. That's impossible now.

Key points

  • People often revert to methods of control or escape in order to cope with stress, which can be unhealthy.
  • The natural means of reducing stress levels in the human body is the parasympathetic nervous system, and it can be activated intentionally.
  • The "three-button" exercise is a great way to activate one's parasympathetic nervous system to reduce stress.

The pandemic is causing huge stress in many ways. What can we do to alleviate it? On TV and on the web, experts offer the standard "control-and-escape" advice.

Control: Stress hormones activate the sympathetic nervous system, the system that revs us up. To avoid getting too revved up, the standard advice is to control the situation that triggers the stress hormones. But, control of the pandemic is not possible.

Escape: When control of a situation isn't possible, the standard advice is to escape awareness of the situation via distraction. Unless escape from reality is permanent, awareness of the pandemic returns.

Expert advice that doesn't work is not merely useless; it is worse than useless. When the advice of experts doesn't work for us, we think there must be something wrong with us. We are left with two alternatives:

  1. Use powerful, but unhealthy, ways to escape psychologically (drugs or alcohol).
  2. Suffer anxiety compounded with the shame that, if the advice doesn't work, there is something wrong with us.

Our Calming System

This distress isn't necessary. The sympathetic nervous system is not our only emotional control system component. In addition to the system that revs us up, we have a system that calms us down, the parasympathetic nervous system. Therapists have found it hard to utilize this system because anxiety sufferers lack the psychological programming needed to activate it. Fortunately, this is changing, as we shall see.

Good PNS Programming

When stress hormones are released, they grab our attention. Something unexpected—perhaps something out of control—is happening. We feel alarmed. And we should. What is going on may be a serious threat. We need alarm to get our attention. Then, if we have good parasympathetic nervous system programming, this system kicks in and calms us automatically. Automatic calming is vital. Clear thinking is needed to deal with an emergency. To think clearly, we need to be cool, calm, and collected.

Not-So-Good Parasympathetic Nervous System Programming

When stress hormones are released, if our parasympathetic nervous system doesn't kick in, we stay alarmed. With nothing to override the effects of the stress hormones, a state of emotional emergency persists. The feelings of distress continue until the stress hormones burn off.

Lack of automatic parasympathetic nervous system activation puts us in a bind. Without it, we can control anxiety only if we can remove uncertainty. To gain certainty, we try to control the situation we find ourselves in. If we can't gain enough control, we seek reassurance. If reassurance is inadequate, we feel forced to get out of the situation. If we can't escape, emotional regulation may fail. We are trapped with the feelings. Some of us can "contain" them. Some of us can't, and, feeling overwhelmed, we panic.

There Is a Solution

That's the problem fearful fliers face. Flying means uncertainty and neither control nor escape is available. Fortunately, I stumbled on a solution. It's really very simple. It involves providing the missing software, a way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This mental software works on the ground as well as in the air. We identify a situation in the past that naturally activated your parasympathetic nervous system. When the memory is vividly recalled, the memory activates the parasympathetic nervous system. What we do next is as simple as what Pavlov did with his dogs: we set up a conditioned response. Through the repetition of a linking exercise, we link the feeling of being stressed to the memory that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.

What Memories Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System?

Neurological researcher Stephen Porges discovered a situation that naturally activates the parasympathetic nervous system. While doing research on the vagus nerve, he discovered that when we are with other people, if they are no threat in any way, they unconsciously transmit signals from their face, voice quality, and body language/touch that activate our parasympathetic nervous system. When activated, the parasympathetic nervous system stimulates the vagus nerve and what Porges calls "vagal braking" takes place. Vagal braking overrides the stress hormones, slows the heart rate, slows the breathing rate, and relaxes the gut.

Think of being in your car and putting your left foot solidly on the brake pedal. If you pressed on the accelerator pedal to rev the engine up, the car wouldn’t go anywhere. The brake overrides the engine.

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The same can be true for us. Vagal braking can neutralize the effects of stress hormones. Once a person has trained their mind to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, it slams their vagal brake pedal on as soon as they feel alarmed. They may calm down so quickly that they aren’t even aware there was a moment when they felt alarmed.

Therapists can learn to use vagal braking in their practice by reading Porges' Clinical Applications of The Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. A layperson can learn to use vagal breaking by reading Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia and training the mind to activate the parasympathetic nervous system by following step-by-step instructions.

The Three-Button Exercise

This is one of the exercises in the book. Use it immediately when you feel stress. Remember a person with whom you felt your guard let down. The signals that cause your guard to let down are transmitted by the person’s face, their voice, and their touch. I want you to imagine buttons you can press to calm yourself. An excerpt from the book follows:

Imagine your friend has pasted a sticker on their forehead bearing a picture of a button with the number 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on their chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of their hand.

Now imagine feeling alarmed. Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker on their forehead and then releasing it. Their face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in their eyes. It feels good.

Imagine putting your finger on the button 2 sticker. As you release it, the person’s lips begin to move, and you hear them greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of their voice calms you deep inside.

Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of their hand. When you release the button, the person lifts their hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug—whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice calming stillness rest on you.

You can activate vagal braking by pressing the buttons any time you wish. But we want to set up calming that works automatically. To establish automatic attenuation, intentionally remember feeling alarmed, and then press button 1. Remember the feeling again; press button 2. Bring the feeling to mind again; press button 3.

Repeated use of this exercise is one of the steps used to teach the parasympathetic nervous system to automatically kick in when calming is needed.

How well does it work? I just posted a video on YouTube in which clients talk about how this has been remarkably helpful during this crisis. I've written more about regulating emotions during this pandemic at this link.