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Calm is also contagious

Updated: May 4, 2021

At the last Reflective Sunday Workshop that Varrie and I did, we shared this video:

What it shows is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is a theory in psychology of a five-tier model of human needs. It is often shown as levels within a pyramid, as it is in this video. The pictures are from the very talented artist, Tori Press - @revelatori. She also has a book coming out, called I am Definitely, Probably Enough (I Think), you can preorder it here.

Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be met before individuals can fulfil the needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation.

Although it is taking it to the extreme, we cannot ignore the fact that we are being told that the survival of our species is threatened by a virus. Not only that, our ability to provide food, clothing and shelter for ourselves and our families is uncertain because of continued lockdowns. This means whether we realise it or not, there are parts of our brains that are aware that meeting our physiological needs is the most important thing right now. It means that we may be feeling things and behaving in ways that we don’t in times when we feel more secure in our basic needs.

Theoretically and spiritually, I have faith that there is enough for everyone and that everything that is happening right now is as it is meant to be in this life. The part of me that knows this is a little different to the part of my brain that is responsible for my immediate survival as a human being.

I have noticed that over the past few months, my tendency towards coping-mechanisms has increased. As always, I thought that if I am experiencing it, then you might be too and that therefore it might help for me to share some resources that have helped me.

The first is this talk by Brene Brown.

She is a Texan and talks about how they have this saying, "Don't piss and moan." To be fair, I think I have heard that being said in my Scottish childhood too - "Stop pissing and moaning." And what she says is, it's neither about moaning and feeling sorry for yourself or about pretending you are dealing with this wonderfully. It's about saying, this is a stressful period of time in history - for everyone in the world.

Many of you who have read my previous blogs will know that I have periods of time where I become overwhelmed with anxiety. One thing that I am most definitely learning is that I have a tendency to somehow disconnect from how I feel about situations as they happen. I think that I am dealing perfectly well, but then later, my serotonin levels drop (for me this is because of menstruation) and I can become hooked on an anxious thought or belief. For me, it is usually specific, but I know that for a lot of people with anxiety, it is not specific – but rather an overall dread that cannot be named or explained.

Brene Brown mentions in her video, as well as in her book, The Power of Vulnerability, that people tend to either be over-functioners or under-functioners. I know without doubt that I am an over-functioner. My mother often asks me gently, “Are you sure you are not doing too much?” For me, it is better that I am doing too much than drinking too much and my mother would agree with that. But doing too much can be bad for your health and your relationships too and I am realising that it is a warning sign that I am in danger of becoming overwhelmed.

This productive period usually comes after some kind of stressful news – for example, the yoga classes stopping again, the yoga studio I am working for closing, talk of another lockdown. When I need to know something that will affect me, I read the news more and I check it regularly. My instincts are then that I do need to do stuff to try and counter any affect that this news might have on my life. Which is not bad in itself, however, what can happen is that the over-functioning can become hyper and obsessive. Usually I am quite quiet, but I can begin gibbering like a budgie, I can get very worked up about politics and human rights and what I believe. I am more agitated; less patient and I breathe less deeply.

Brene Brown. Credit: Maile Wilson

The good news is, I am beginning to be very aware of these signals and I am taking steps to prepare for the feelings that may be coming. Instead of letting all of this build up and telling myself that I am above all of this hype and scare-mongering because I am so “spiritual,” when things happen, I say to myself, “This is a stressful circumstance. It’s ok to feel stressed about it.” It sounds very painstaking, and it might be, but it is necessary for me to connect to my emotional brain and to be present in uncomfortable feelings as they arise rather than put them off until they build up and become a waterfall that I drown in.

The other side of the coin may be that you are an under-functioner. What this means is that you become unable to do anything in times of stress and you let other people take over, or you do nothing and feel useless.

I read a meme recently that said, "Anxiety is feeling too much and depression is really not feeling anything." I have to admit that I don’t know what it’s like to not feel anything and for that reason, I don’t think I have experienced depression - so if you have, any you don't relate, feel free to correct me. But I can empathise with the debilitating way either of those extremes would make you feel, or indeed, both together. Whether feeling nothing or feeling too much, it can lead to feeling paralysed to do the things you know you need to do, which can conjure up feelings of low-self-esteem and self-worth.

That's not to say that right now everyone will either be suffering from (as we might say it) anxiety or depression. It is described as a disorder or condition when it occurs over a long period of time, or is particularly extreme - causing problems in work, relationships or life. For a more detailed discussion about anxiety and depression, click here.

Cute cat hiding under a pile of blankets
Every felt like Honey and hiding under a pile of covers?

Anxiety and sadness are feelings that we all experience and are not 'bad' - in fact they can encourage us to take action that encourages achievement, understanding, compassion, strength, purpose and self-worth. But when the process of experiencing these emotions is out of balance, they can become as debilitating as any physical illness. For an article I wrote about what is happening in the brain when you have an anxiety disorder, click here.

Again, as always, I believe it’s about balance. I talk about this all the time in my yoga classes. We need to be soft and strong. We have to be soft enough to let things in and out, without letting so much in that we collapse.

I think many people, like me, watch videos like Brene's and recognise that it makes sense and sounds right, but there is a big huge, brave step between understanding what right action is and having the guts to take it. This is where we need to develop strength of mind and strength of character.

It's also really interesting to note what Brene is saying about anxiety being contagious -

“Anxiety is always a function of groups. The antidote to anxiety is calm. Calm is also contagious.” Brene Brown

Another trigger I have noticed is talking to or reading social media posts from people who believe in conspiracy theories, or who have what I would call, fear-based ideas about reality. I have no real way of knowing if these things are true or not, but often these people are anxious about the things they believe and as someone who feels so much, it is very difficult not to catch their anxiety. I am not sure whether these people are able to function well in life believing these things, all I know is that I can’t. I have to agree with Brene that, “We take terrible decisions in anxiety.”

So, another video I want to share with you in terms of that, is this one by Brad Warner (a Zen Buddhist writer).

In it, he talks about how we respond when you meet people who appear to be ‘hooked’ on fear-based beliefs about the situation we are in right now (or indeed, at any time).

If you’re like me and you care about these people, you want to know what to do so that you don’t catch their anxiety, but you are still able to be a decent human being and/or friend.

Brad therefore explains something that Brene touches on in her quote above. Anxiety may be contagious, but so is calm. Brad says in these situations, he tries to be “solid and unshakeable”. God, I would love to be solid and unshakeable all of the time. I think Brad is definitely right that when you are in a panic, you want to be around someone who is “steady and unperturbed” and that “Only those who can rise above the urge to panic can offer any real help.” It’s not to say that you shouldn’t react to situations, but that you shouldn’t panic about what is going on. Panic will not help.

“You have to maintain balance in a situation where everyone around you is doing everything they can to knock you off balance.” Brad Warner

So, how do we do this?

As always for me, this involves self-inquiry, meditation and yoga practice.

My understanding is that yoga is primarily about balance - in the physical, emotional and spiritual sense. I believe that in order to find that balance, the first step is to be aware of how you are feeling right now and then to be aware of what your reaction to both what you feel and what is happening around you is.

What are you feeling urges to do right now? Anyone else have an urge to spend money? Anyone else taking huge amounts of pleasure in food and drink. Are you drinking more alcohol than you usually would? Are you retreating even further into your comfort zone and not going out even when you could? Sleeping more? Are you turning everything you do into a productivity project? Are your Xmas decorations up already? Have you been buying loads of stuff for your house?

I thought someone might already have written a blog about this, but maybe it should be the subject of another blog. Send me a message or comment and tell me what urges you have had over the last few months that seem like pandemic impulses? Keep it clean (literally, maybe that's one of your urges). It doesn't do us any harm to laugh at our lunacy every now and then. It's even part of a slogan in Buddhism that I discovered in a book that Carlo bought me this year, Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong. It immediately became my favourite and is well worth repeating to yourself at this time:

Do Good, Avoid Evil, Appreciate Your Lunacy, Pray for Help

Anyway, once you’ve developed that awareness and you can see what your habitual tendencies and lunacies are, it's a good idea to cultivate space to process things before you take action. Then you want to be clear about what right action is to you. Finally, you need the confidence and guts to take that action.

Sometimes that action is speaking to a friend, your doctor or a therapist. Sometimes it’s about taking medication to address an imbalance or it’s about changing your habits or diet – most of the time, it means doing many or all of these things.

However, it starts with the awareness. And the best way I have found to develop that awareness is a regular yoga and meditation practice. At the start of most of my classes, we check in - with body, breath and mind. We don't judge, we don't begin analysing, we just notice, then we move and breathe.

If you want to hear more about cultivating this awareness, I do restorative yoga classes every Sunday night at 7pm - 8.15pm, which are suitable for complete beginners.

Come along and let's see if we can create balance in the world by cultivating calm.

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