It’s time to talk about how we are feeling – lots of us are feeling wobbly, we’re having reactions that we don’t really understand, and things are constantly changing. In times of crisis we start doing weird stuff – we can struggle to sleep, we overwatch the news, we go to the supermarket and buy things we don’t usually eat, we are quick to get angry with friends and family. You might find that you are a bit teary, you might be drinking more than usual, you might want to eat cake, cake and more cake!
If you are having a wobble have you noticed other stuff going on? Are you arguing more, picking fights, talking faster, restless, desperate for information? Are you struggling to make decisions, do you find yourself saying random inappropriate things, or perhaps you just want to stay in bed? Have you got physical symptoms such as an upset tummy, palpitations, butterflies, headaches?
If you are feeling any of these things then the good news is that this is a normal reaction to the situation we find ourselves in, and you are not alone! We are living in anxious times – this is an unprecedented crisis that has happened unexpectedly and which presents a threat to ourselves, our loved ones, and our way of life. It’s scary and it makes us feel out of control.
So here’s the science bit….
When we are exposed to threats and need to deal with them our brain springs into action – specifically a tiny, innocent looking thing buried behind your ear called the amygdala. It’s the part of your brain that’s in charge when we are frightened and right now it’s in full tin-hat klaxon mode! Unfortunately, it’s also a very ancient bit of kit. It came into being when threats basically consisted of being eaten by large scary animals like bears. To the amygdala everything looks like a bear and it only really has two settings: no bear and BEAR!
Setting BEAR! Because all threats look like a bear to the amygdala, it preps you accordingly to either fight it or run away really fast. So this is what your body gets you ready to do. You may have heard of this already – it’s called the Fight or Flight response. It floods your body with chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up, you feel super alert, your breathing goes shallow, your muscles are ready for action. These chemicals are also largely responsible for the huge range of other physical and emotional reactions I mentioned earlier, and your body reacts even if your conscious mind doesn’t. This is all great if you are really running away from a bear, but we’re now in a situation where we’re being asked to do the exact opposite of running away – to sit tight! We are trying to process large amounts of information, make complicated and life changing decisions and stay calm. All while this bit of your brain is running around yelling BEAR! BEAR! BEAR! This isn’t easy.
So what do we do? Well, the good news is it is possible to calm down. We can turn the amygdala from BEAR! to NO BEAR! (and not just with distracting it with cake and tea). Here are some solid, scientifically proven, things you can do:
Breathe: It’s so basic, but breathing exercises are basically magic – they work in minutes and you can do them anywhere. They work because of all the physical reactions the amygdala triggers, rapid breathing is the only one over which we have conscious control. Control your breathing and you are basically telling your body: it’s okay, there is no bear. Your body will then start to dial down the adrenaline and cortisol and all other reactions will slow to a halt. So, how do you control your breathing? Try this YouTube video as a starting exercise: or search two minute breathe bubble in YouTube. Remember:
- In through the nose, out through the mouth. Slowly.
- Make the out breath longer than the in breath – imagine there is a candle in front of you and it mustn’t go out.
- Breathe from the tummy, not chest – really make your tummy go out when breathing in.
- Do it for two minutes – time yourself – and see how you feel.
Seriously, try it, this technique is used by everyone from top athletes to the US military to help stay in control while under stress. There are lots of versions, search online for them or contact Student Wellbeing for more resources.
Call a friend: Don’t suffer alone, call a friend – someone who’ll listen while you have a bit of a rant, or a cry or a general wobble. Someone you can trust not to judge you and who’ll just sympathise. And if you get one of those calls, just be nice to them – you only need to be kind. You can’t fix what’s going on so just give them a space to rant and tell them they’re normal and doing great. And if you’re okay, then call your friends and check on them – especially if they’ve gone silent. If you’re concerned about another student, you can also alert Student Advisory & Wellbeing.
Laugh: It doesn’t matter what’s funny, laughter is a huge releaser of endorphins – silly memes, silly jokes, stand-up, videos on YouTube – the sillier the better! This is also good for bonding with friends, which will help you feel less alone.
Do something with your hands: Yes you can meditate, and if this is your bag, then it’s great, but if it’s not, then trying to start something new when you’re anxious is really hard. So instead do something with your hands that you have to focus on to get right – cook, tidy, knit, draw, bake, garden, mend things. This is your version of mindfulness!
Treat your body: We hold stress in our bodies as much as our minds, so take a bath or a shower, put on things that feel good on your skin, use nice smelling body creams, stretch, skip, do yoga, dance, eat healthy but delicious things (fresh if you can get it). All of these will help calm you down.
Sunshine: It’s Springtime, enjoy it. If you can’t go outside, open the windows, feel it on your face and breathe it in. If it’s safe for you to go outside, do it, while observing social distance. Being outdoors and connecting to nature is hugely calming.
Take breaks from social media / news: Stick to sensible sources of information like the BBC and the NHS, and limit how often you are watching/listening/sharing news. You’ll feel better immediately. Talk to friends (online) instead.
Step away from unhealthy coping mechanisms: They will translate as BEAR! to your brain – especially don’t get drunk particularly if you’re alone (BEAR!), take drugs (BEAR!), stay up all night reading (BEAR!), get sucked into conspiracy theories (BEAR!). See? Stress levels going up already! Breathe.
Be kind: To yourself and others. Now is not the time to go on a diet, nor is it the time to makeover your life. You’ll probably fail and make yourself feel worse. Don’t make this anymore stressful than it already is. Think comfort books, comfort tv, comfort everything. Everyone is going have a wobble at some point. Understand that if someone is angry or aggressive, then they are also just scared. And eat more cake. Cake makes everything better. So, be a little less BEAR!
If you found this helpful, we have lots more resources, tips and advice, so please get in touch with us.
Written by Susan, Wellbeing Adviser (Student Advisory & Wellbeing)
Credit to Imogen Wall, Trainer and Advisor specialising in crisis management, mental health and safeguarding in humanitarian contexts for most of the content of this article.