2020 was a doozy for many of us. Your stress brain could be on the lookout to see if 2021 will be offering something better, or more of the same. Seeing life through the lens of your stress brain is like viewing things through grey-colored glasses as opposed to rose. At this stage in the pandemic, grey tint is becoming quite common, and many people feel they are much more sensitive than they are used to. Clients, friends, and my teen daughters have been describing that conversations, text exchanges, and even video-call facial expressions are lingering with them for a long time, with accompanying doubt and insecurities popping up.
The familiar pain of thinking you’re not measuring up, feeling that ‘less than,’ and wondering if you’re just not good enough. Not yet anyway. Try harder, insists the inner critic, and drones on, Did I say the wrong thing? Come on, really show your stuff! I think I might have talked too much. Impress them! Then you’d arrive at, good enough. Oh, the see-saw of criticism and promises. And the scrambling that ensues. The bar that keeps raising, even as you are giving it your all, arms outstretched, trying in earnest to reach that ever-higher rung on the ladder.
While at first, the virus was the biggest threat for almost all of us—one that we quickly became accustomed to being vigilant about—now isolation is becoming an equal threat for many. Isolation can dramatically heighten our sensitivity to perceived rejection, and vigilance for feeling judged; the thoughts and feelings that wonder, Is something wrong with me? can work overtime.
Stephen Porges, a distinguished university professor at the Kinsey Institute, explains that we humans have evolved to calculate our safety or danger in social circles by determining if we are being accepted or rejected by the group members. Feeling not good enough can be much more than a ‘Debbie Downer’ disposition within our survival brain. It can be truly menacing.
As a therapist, I see this very often. However, it’s not specific to those who seek out therapy, nor to ‘high-power’ or ‘low-power’ folks. I’ve worked with CEOs who struggle with this fear daily, and see it in countless others as well. It invades doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents, and sadly, kids as well. I’ve seen this in dozens of colleagues—those with and without the highest of degrees, and full schedules of grateful clients. It’s there in professors and supervisors with literally hundreds of satisfied students and mentees. The nagging fear of not yet being good enough invades so many of us—of course, I’ve known it in myself too.
Bethany Webster, who speaks and writes about wounding from primary relationships, describes that the results of early disconnection are often chronic “comparison: not feeling good enough, and shame: consistent background sense that there is something wrong with you.” For many, the prolonged isolation of this pandemic is making these well-known pangs much worse.
Stress research shows that high alert in the stress brain, fearing social rejection, and habits of comparison stemming from long ago can all contribute to chronic self-assessment. All this brings stress-reactivity to the fore and awakens the amygdala—your brain’s fear and stress headquarters. Once the amygdala is online in our brain, we’re not processing only the stresses of now; we’re also entangled in the stresses of yesteryear. Previous imprints of self-doubt can quickly become current blueprints for self-doubt. Which can look like our amygdala firing while remote-working, when Zoom-socializing, even with our chosen bubble-buddies or romantic partners—all of which can be a recipe for sensitivity, worry, and vigilance.
Harkening back to Abraham Maslow—professor at both Cornell and Brandeis Universities’, and champion of positive mental health who is the father of the hierarchical needs pyramid—safety and belonging are at the core of the basic must-haves for human well-being. Lack of safety and belonging can look like stress brain repeatedly asking if you’re respected or valued by the people you’re with or the groups you’re in. For example, a client I’ll call Jane is aware that her pandemic stress has led to nagging inner queries about whether or not she’s earned a safe place at work, with friends, and even within her chosen bubble.
Jane feels an urgency to prove her worth continually, and she regularly exhausts herself trying to achieve what is ultimately a nebulous goal of feeling assured she’s not going to be ‘voted off the island.’
If this is familiar to you, healing the fear that you might not be keeping up with the pack needs to take place. One thing you can do right now to help this process: practice soothing your stress brain. To get started, let’s use the image of balance scales—you know, the old ones that have a bowl on each side with a horizontal lever in the center. Imagine that each side contains thoughts, sensations, and emotions of safe or not safe (and her cousins: afraid, worried, insecure, etc.). Part of soothing your stress brain is balancing these scales, or even tipping them so that the bowl of safe is more full than the bowl of not safe. In this brief practice, we will clear away some of the grey tint of your ‘stress-glasses’ and move them closer to clear. We’ll do this by feeling okay or okay-enough in your body, and seeing okay or okay-enough around you. I call this ‘seeing and sensing practice.’
A brief stress brain soothing practice:
- First, find a reasonably comfortable spot wherever you are, and begin with a few slow and easy breaths. Focus on your full breaths out. Each exhale supports a shift toward your easing up and resting (parasympathetic) nervous system. This can begin the amygdala soothing we’re aiming for here. Notice how the slow-and-low breaths feel in your body right now.
- Next, begin to unhurriedly look around your environment. Let your eyes drift and wander leisurely, taking in any and all things around you that are okay or okay-enough, and discover what your gaze might want to land on for a few moments. This is scanning for safety—as opposed to scanning for danger—and it can have a very positive effect on your stress brain. See how it is to let your eyes rest on anything they enjoy right now—take your time, no rush.
- Now practice sensing where in your body you feel a little more ease or comfort than you did a few moments ago. Take notice of anywhere in your body that has shifted away from held-tight and toward softer, looser, more relaxed. Even if it’s just a slight shift, that’s helping to fill the basket of okay-enough and even up those scales.
- Finish up this brief practice by taking a moment to notice the resilience you have accessed. Maybe you even want to gently congratulate yourself; if yes, go for it! It helps tip the scales too.
A short practice like this can gently communicate to your brain and body that a threat is not imminent, and that you can shift out of fear-driven mode into something more easeful. My pilot study called The Mind-Body Reset showed that with a collection of brief practices like this one, you can bring the stress scales into balance, and over time tip them toward more robust well-being. Even though the stresses of this pandemic and the ongoing social-emotional disconnection might expose us to fearing we’re not good enough, an update to the system is available. And with repeated practice, okay-enough becomes as familiar to your whole brain and body as not okay-enough once were.
There are many quick-and-easy tips on stress-soothing tools. in my new book, The Mind-Body Stress Reset.
Rebekkah LaDyne, MS, SEP, is a somatic therapist, researcher, mind-body skills educator, and author. She is a member of the United States Association for Body Psychotherapy. Based on her extensive research in mind-body medicine at Saybrook University, her comprehensive training with the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, and her more than two decades of work in the field of embodied well-being, she developed the mind-body reset (MBR) protocol. Rebekkah has supported thousands of people—beginning from within her own wellness center, to groups she taught at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and while traveling to worldwide destinations offering workshops and retreats. She is in private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. She can be found online at www.rebekkahladyne.com.