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Dublin: 18 °C Wednesday 15 July, 2020
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Wellness Wednesday: 'Anxiety isn’t only in your head' - an occupational therapist says the body holds the key

Mental Health Occupational Therapist Michelle Murray says we can freeze up at times like this, but there are simple ways to ease stress.

Michelle Murray

The Covid-19 changes have come bounding into our lives, upending them. We are being asked to make huge personal sacrifices in order to face down this pandemic. Those changes can bring physical and emotional shocks that are difficult to process.

Here at TheJournal.ie, we are running a weekly Voices column, ‘Wellness Wednesday’, in which we feature advice and information from mental health professionals, yoga teachers, mindfulness practitioners and more. We hope this weekly section will help you, our readers, navigate this unprecedented shift in how we live.

This week, we hear from Mental Health Occupational Therapist Michelle Murray. She discusses the body’s ability to handle trauma and offers some helpful advice when it comes to handling the changes we now face:

WE ALL KNOW the feeling that overwhelms us when we’re walking along and suddenly, we trip up. We experience intense fear and a loss of control for a moment. Fear is something that physically happens in our bodies. Our guts twist and tighten, our jaws clench, our shoulders lift, we experience butterflies in our stomachs. Many sensations engulf the body. Then, we have thoughts. 

In this current climate, we have lots of things causing us to feel fear. We have a scary virus roaming our communities and discombobulating us on so many levels. Many of you reading this I’m sure are feeling traumatised.

We’re being constantly exposed to fear during this time. Fear of contracting the virus, fear for our friends and families, fear of seeing traumatic images and fear of hearing more sad stories. For many of us, we’re storing this fear in our bodies.

What’s happening in my body?

During these fearful moments, the largest nerve in the body called the vagus nerve is taking information from the gut and relaying it to our brains. In simple terms, the body is telling the brain that there is a threat and it should alert itself.

shutterstock_229165585 Vagus nerve vector illustration. Labelled anatomical structure scheme and location diagram of human body longest nerve. Infographic with isolated ganglion, branches and plexus. Inner biological ANS. Source: Shutterstock

The nervous system goes into survival mode. This means that it starts preparing the body to be able to fight or flight the perceived “danger”. Stress hormones such as cortisol are released, causing an increase in blood pressure and blood sugar. Our heart starts to beat faster. We may feel sweaty and pumped with energy.

During this process, the body diverts energy that is typically used to support our digestive, immune and reproductive systems towards other areas such as the heart. Some organs are neglected and therefore don’t function as efficiently. Often we may experience stomach or bowel issues such as diarrhoea or constipation. Can you relate to these symptoms? If so, your body might just be asking you for a helping hand. 

Recognising how your body is feeling can help your mind

Experiencing prolonged trauma and anxiety in our bodies can be exhausting. If you don’t get a break from feeling anxious over time it’s possible your body is having difficulty reverting back to its normal relaxed mode again. It’s also possible your immune system is being compromised which in this climate is not a great place to be.

However, there is some good news! We can interrupt this feedback loop that’s coming from the belly to the brain. By practising some of the strategies below on a regular basis you will begin to feel a sense of control over your body which will, in turn, lead you to feel more emotionally regulated. By giving the body this new experience of practising calmness, you’re telling the brain that, “hey I’m okay”. 

shutterstock_289956929 Source: Shutterstock/marekuliasz

What can I do to help my body?

  1. Show compassion: Your body won’t lie to you, the way you’re feeling in your heart or in your gut right now is your body’s way of telling the truth. Listening to your body and honouring its signals is one of the true forms of self-compassion. If you need rest, rest. If you need to move, move. If you need nourishment, feed yourself a range of fresh fruits and vegetables.

  2. Breathe: Practice breathing slowly. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds and exhale it all out for 8 calming seconds. Practising slowing your out-breath will help to kickstart the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system.  You could also try inhaling an easy breath and as you exhale make a “voooo” sound (like an Australian didgeridoo). The noise and sensation can be comforting for your stomach muscles. Try practising breathing slowly daily. Figure out what breathing techniques suit you best. 

  1. Acknowledge where you might be holding onto trauma and anxiety in your body. Notice an area of tension and think about it. It’s okay to feel this way right now in this area. Remind yourself of this. We are going through a scary time and you’re allowed to feel anxious in your body.

  2. Practice living in the present moment with your body. Practice sitting on a chair or on the floor and noticing sensations in your body such as the surface beneath you, the clothes against your skin, the temperature in the room. Maybe try this for 5 minutes to start with. Use a guided body scan if you’re new to this practice.

  3. Move: dance, run, walk, stretch. Notice your muscles, notice the feelings in your body as you move. Listen to music that moves you in a good way and makes you sway.

  4. Give yourself a massage: notice your shoulders, your jaw, your cheeks and your forehead. Even better – get someone you’re isolating with else to give you a massage! 

  5. Try a gentle yoga practise: If you’re new to yoga, check out some shorter trauma-sensitive chair and standing practices on www.anchortherapy.ie. Otherwise use YouTube and find a class that feels accessible and enjoyable for you.

Michelle Murray is a Mental Health Occupational Therapist, Trauma Sensitive Yoga Facilitator and founder of Anchor Therapy Mental Health Services in Dublin. She is supporting the community through online counselling during the Covid-19 outbreak. You can follow Michelle on Instagram @the_wellness_anchor or check out her weekly mental health blogs at www.anchortherapy.ie.

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Michelle Murray

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