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  • Writer's pictureKristy Johnsson

Let go of the toilet paper

The importance of a resilient nervous system in times of uncertainty

Photo via Unsplash
photo via Unsplash


Here we are.

Looks like we have a bit of time on our hands for the next few upcoming weeks.

I realize that this is a time of suffering for a lot of people, and that, in all likelihood, that suffering will intensify in the US and many parts of the world. I don't want to minimize its significance and all the forms that it might take. Grief and fear are fully appropriate emotions in these times.

And this virus, along with our various forms of quarantine and self-isolating, might be the very thing the world needs, and our nervous systems long for.

There have been articles coming out that have articulated in both scientific terms and prose the massive shift that has begun and that many of us have feared (or secretly hoped) for some time due to climate change, economic collapse, and/or political destabilization. Many are calling this new sociopolitical reality "the new normal," and others say that COVID-19 may be with us in some form or another for the indefinite future.

This is a lot to take in. The level of uncertainty is hard for most of us. How will we get our needs met? When will we get to see our loved ones again? These questions don't have answers, and we might find ourselves emotionally overwhelmed, scared, and quite literally, alone. Like I said, this is a lot for anybody to grapple with.

There is a profound opportunity for us in this, though, and one that could make all the difference in the way our relationships with ourselves and one another change, and what the world we create for ourselves and our children looks like.

COVID-19 invites us to pause and drop in

I couldn't help but notice the way the dawning severity of the coronavirus pandemic was the most incentivized somatic/mindfulness program I had yet come across. It seems like folks were drawn into the moment and into their bodies with a ferocious dedication akin to monastic training:

  • How do I physically feel right now? Do I feel well, unwell? Do I notice any peculiar sensations in my body?

  • What physical impulses and urges do I notice? An urge to touch my face, or a public restroom doorknob? An urge to cough?

  • Where am I moving? What are my hands doing? What am I touching? What are those around me doing? What is their proximity to my body?

In a way, we needed to have death on our doorstep to break ourselves out of our incessant thought loops and enmeshment with our mental activity to be so conscious of our somatic and sensory experience in the moment. And it isn't just the physical and environmental mindfulness that we might be engaging in more consistently. We might also be noticing the way these questions and their answers also often come with rapid-fire mental images, perhaps of crowded hospitals or personal illness, and psychosomatic patterns of sensations of fear, frustration, or even anger immediately in their wake. This is the more subtle practice, but in many ways it is just as important and carries as many consequences for public health as washing your hands and identifying symptoms.

In the midst of this toilet-paper-hand-sanitizer-hoarding-black-market-price-gouging fiasco, you might wonder what drives people to engage in what seems like unnecessary and even greedy behavior. When we're overwhelmed, we'll often compulsively reach for chocolate, a drink, a certain individual, social media, or in this case, items you believe will keep you safe (or at least your bum clean) in a disaster as a way of regulating the very quick building intensity of physical discomfort in our nervous systems. The problem is that many of our nervous systems are already overloaded with unprocessed trauma and unconscious pain that nearly all of us carry, and that makes us very sensitive to any threats - real or perceived - that might tip us over the edge of what we can manage. When something as legitimately scary as a pandemic begins to emerge, that compulsion proportionately intensifies with the sensation in our bodies. So we're reaching for toilet paper as a way to decrease that intensity in our nervous systems and help us feel safe, and because the rational part of our brain is literally turned off by that fear, no amount of rationality is going to convince us otherwise. It's an impulse that's very hard to control, as the conflicts in supermarkets over toilet paper reveal, and that's exactly how nature intended it.

So our responses aren't just to the pandemic itself, but to all those times we may have felt desperate, terrified, or experienced a threat to our survival, as well. When we identify these nervous system responses and release old emotions and survival energy lodged in our nervous system due to childhood and ancestral trauma and pain, we no longer need these compulsions, making us more emotionally resilient and less prone to irrational and harmful behavior. We have the capacity to accept uncertainty, and even realize that it's a fundamental truth that has always accompanied us, despite the social and cultural lullabies. Our awareness and more grounded, stable nervous system becomes an asset not just to our own well-being, but to those around us who may be struggling in these trying times. Without it, we're more likely to be a liability regardless of our intentions.

The reality and opportunity of quarantine, whether it's voluntary or not

What happens when you have an entire country that has used work as a way of avoiding untold amounts of unresolved psychological pain and trauma, now anxious about this uncertain and largely inescapable circumstance, placed in isolation for weeks, unable to work? How might it exacerbate tensions at home, between partners, parents and children, and siblings? We may find our nervous systems rattled by the removal of work, and might feel overwhelmed by the arising of emotional pain in the absence of something that's both served as a method of coping and may even feel like the core of our sense of who we are. The social isolation only compounds it all. Ironically, the overwhelm we experience as the pain surfaces drives the very compulsion to work and consume, maintaining our fragile, exploitative, and unsustainable socioeconomic systems that are much of the problem in the first place.

Whew, what a vicious cycle. A "positive feedback loop" they call it, actually. And positive not in the ooey-gooey, warm 'n' fuzzies sort of way, but in the systemic, self-reinforcing way.

But we can use this time as an opportunity to build awareness of how our nervous systems operate and slowly, at our own pace, begin to heal the wounds that have imprisoned us individually and collectively.

Many of us don't realize that when we finally rest from our busy schedules, the anxiety, despair, or other emotional distress that arises isn't necessarily a bad thing - though admittedly it's often uncomfortable - but a sign that our nervous systems sense we're safe and are beginning the very natural process of self-healing. The problem is that our culture not only gives us no education around the nature of this process, but even actively discourages it by reinforcing addictive and compulsive behaviors through socioeconomic norms of consumption. Repeatedly, it gets interrupted. This unique situation of self-imposed or government-mandated isolation can be an opportunity to gently begin to align with that very natural process so that we become more emotionally resilient in these uncertain times, not only experiencing greater peace and groundedness ourselves, but acting as a reservoir of support and foundation of stability for our families and communities.

Some basic suggestions if you're beginning to experience intensifying emotions during a lockdown:

  • Educate yourself on how your nervous system works! Knowledge is power and can bring us into alignment with our natural healing capacity through insight and understanding.

  • Practice mindfulness! Notice sensations in your body, details in your environment, and notice which ones give you a sense of calm and ease, and which ones are activating. Take breaks if you get overwhelmed. There are plenty of apps out there that be helpful, and you can even make it a game. At the same time, know that engaging in compulsive behaviors is likely going to happen, so self-compassion is critical here, and that engaging in them with awareness is a crucial step.

  • Curiosity can be a powerful and compassionate response to fear. If you're noticing you're anxious, see if you can connect with supportive others also engaging in this work and be curious about what you're experiencing in your body and in your mind, together.

  • Identify people and activities that help you feel calm and grounded, and connect with them as necessary. There's no need to power through this.

  • Practice listening to your body, honoring what it needs as much as you're able.

My sense is that the times ahead may bring even more change, and with that, exponentially growing unknowns. Reconnecting with the wisdom and intelligence of our bodies is one of the most useful things we can do to prepare for and weather these times while being in service to those around us rather than reaching for that last case of toilet paper.

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