Holding Our Collective Breath

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“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.” ~ Anonymous

I woke up very early the other day, too early for the time I’d gone to bed. As I tried to get myself back to sleep for a bit, I took a very, very deep inhale of breath. It shocked me how good (and foreign) it felt. I realized that in this era of global pandemic, I’ve basically been holding my breath. Many of us have.

But wait, I’ve been meditating, praying, doing some yoga, practicing good breathing. And I realized that’s the only time I’ve actually been breathing. The rest of the time, I’m in a state of fight or flight shallow breathing, which eventually feels almost like holding your breath. The chest grows tight, constricted, and the lungs just barely keep us going.

It’s understandable. We are all in a strange state. We are in limbo, yet hyper-vigilant at the same time. We don’t know how this will play out, we have little control, and we can’t plan for the future. We are in separate lifeboats just trying to figure out each day.

Our breath, thankfully, is part of the autonomic nervous system, bodily functions that happen without us thinking about it. However, our breath and heart rate reflect our state of mind, our emotions, and our fears. When we are scared, our heart rate quickens, and our breath becomes faster and more shallow. We are ready to run.

Only here, in our various states of quarantine, there’s nowhere to go.

Ironically, as we face this catastrophic Covid-19, as so many people are struggling to breathe and survive, it’s increasingly important to add a breathing practice to our daily routine. Here we are, in unprecedented times, wearing face masks when we do venture out, often feeling literally afraid to breathe! But breath is life, and it’s never been more important to breathe more deeply, to relax our nervous systems, and to live in the moment.

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all our autonomic nervous system functions, the breath is the one we have the most conscious control over. It has a direct influence on the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs throughout the autonomic system. Slow exhalations cause this nerve to relax and bring us closer to a feeling of well-being.

Besides relaxation, the benefits of deep breathing include boosting the immune system, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, reduced depression, improvement in  diabetes, and the management of chronic pain. For me, it also provides a sense of control. I may not be able to control the outward situation, but I can control my response to it. With regular breath practice, I control the effect of the pandemic on my nervous system. I control how much fear I’m willing to experience. Deep breathing in conjunction with meditation or prayer is extremely healing and centering. Even just stopping for a moment, taking a deep breath, filling the lungs, and allowing a long, slow exhale, can re-center us quickly.

“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

When fear and anxiety arise, I use this simple technique to help me stay in the moment.

Breathing in think, “In this moment I have ___________. (water, sun, music, air, etc.)

Breathing out think, “In this moment I need nothing.”

Repeat until you feel calmer. Regulating our breath helps us focus on the present moment, and focusing on the present moment keeps our minds from spiraling into worse-case scenarios.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends deep breathing as part of any wellness program. Here is a link to three of his favorite exercises. https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

The world is, indeed, holding its collective breath. Let us take some collective deep breaths, calming the vagus nerve of the planet. Breathe deeply, fill your lungs, hold for a moment, then exhale slowly, blowing out audibly your fear and anxiety. Take some calming breaths for those who cannot – those who we hold in deep compassion; those working on the front lines of this pandemic, those who are fighting for their lives, those who are suddenly unemployed, and those who have been thrown into unforeseen grief.

I pray that one day, we will all breathe easy again. In the meantime, breathe deeply.

“Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love: every moment of existence is a grace.”

~ Thomas Merton

You Are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

4/7/20

Covid-19 and Collective Trauma

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The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” – Peter A. Levine

Lately, I’ve been conscious of trauma as it applies to society. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the world is currently in a state of collective trauma. Collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that can affect an entire society. For most of us, our daily way of life has drastically changed in the last few weeks. Freedoms and income have been reduced, and we are in a constant low-grade state of fear.

When a society experiences a collective trauma, such as 9/11, mass shootings, natural disasters, etc., our routines and relationships, those things that anchor us to our society are disrupted in such a way that it can leave us struggling to reclaim the purpose of our lives. In some ways, this can lead to a positive re-prioritizing of what is truly important. In other ways, it can leave us grasping for meaning and feeling hopeless.

For those of us already dealing with PTSD, this collective trauma can trigger other traumas to rise to the surface. We may find we are having trouble sleeping, nightmares, generalized anxiety, or hyper-vigilance may be rearing their heads again. Others may find they are having a surprisingly calm reaction to all this, as being in a trauma state is not strange to us, and we feel able to function in this state better than others.

Traumatic events can trigger past traumas, and who among us has not experienced some level of trauma? So we as a society have this huge collective trauma and our own historical traumas slamming us all at once. It’s a lot to deal with and process! And we’re confined either with partners, family, friends, or alone. Being alone can be most challenging as there is no distraction from your own thoughts.

If you’ve been feeling some of this, the dis-ease that has been engendered by this disease, there are practices you can undertake to ease the trauma response. We must regularly engage in self-care, find comfort in spiritual practice, stay connected to our tribe, and begin to reframe our relationship to historical trauma.

“Radical self-care is what we’ve been longing for, desperate for, our entire lives – friendship with our own hearts.” ~ Anne Lamott

Self-care is the best thing you can do for yourself right now. Stay centered and grounded as much as you can in whatever way works for you. Exercise, yoga, meditation, bubble baths, reading, and creative expression will connect you to your center. We cannot face this event coming from a place of scattered emotions and thoughts. Limit your news to a single check-in every day to keep from going down the black hole of information saturation. Go outside and find a place to connect to nature. None of these things cost money and can help you find some balance amidst the chaos.

If you have a spiritual practice, there is no better time to enhance and build upon it. Read, study, pray, and fill your soul with comfort, fill your mind with faith. Read the inspired words of those who have overcome darkness. Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Mother Teresa, for example, are inspiring in their ability to hold onto faith in the midst of great suffering. Turn to your spiritual practice at this time to help you hold onto your faith, and to get a glimpse of the big picture. The world has survived many traumas and will survive this one as well.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl

In these times, we must find a way to stay connected to our tribe. Facetime, Zoom, Marco Polo, social media and good old fashioned phone calls are our life-lines now. Resist the urge to isolate, to avoid the changes we’re all adjusting to, and reach out. Write letters, send cards, connect with people you’ve been meaning to re-connect with. You have time, and everyone needs to hear from the people they treasure.

Lastly, start to reframe your relationship to historical trauma. If we are here, we have survived trauma, personal, ancestral, historical, and collective. This means we are resilient and we have developed coping skills that not everyone has. We know how to self-calm, self-care, rise above, forgive, and even help others. Build on the resilience you’ve developed thus far! We are strong, flexible, wise souls and our energies are needed in this crisis.

               “We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong.                    The amount of effort is the same.” – Pema Chodron

We are in a state of collective trauma. So let us attempt to join in collective healing, first by taking good care of ourselves, then by contributing to healing the energy of the planet. We all need the energies of compassion, positivity, balance, and calm right now. Let’s practice this in our daily lives and see what healers we are.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

3/20/2020