You’ve just been gob-smacked and your world is spinning. You can’t think clearly, want to throw up, are looking for a place to hide or trying to wake up the nightmare that your world has just become. Most people, when faced with a life changing event like a cancer diagnosis, death of a loved one, sudden loss of an important relationship or job, feel it in their bodies. It becomes hard to breathe, our stomachs roil, we become light headed and nothing seems real. My memory of those first days after my sixteen year old son was diagnosed with precursor B cell lymphoma is hazy, I was disoriented, terrified, and numb—sometimes all at the same time.
So, what is going on, inside this skin that may feel like it no longer belongs to us? Our bodies, relying on the primitive (and successful) evolutionary design of the limbic system responds quickly and completely to stress or distress that we perceive to be severe. Our neurochemistry kicks into action, flooding the brain and the body with massive amounts of neurochemicals and hormones (adrenaline, norepinephrine, cortisol, and epinephrine) to read
y us to fight or flee. Physiologically, our blood pressure goes up, our pupils dilate, and our senses become hyper-vigilant to any changes around us.
Given all this and more that is happening inside of our bodies, it’s not surprising that we have trouble thinking straight. If we are going to move from shock to effective action, the first and most important action we can take is to move back into our bodies. In addition to the obvious techniques of eating well (protein and good complex carbohydrates rather than sugary fixes), getting adequate sleep, and maintaining some kind of exercise program, try some of the following suggestions to get back into your body so that you can do what needs to be done:
Take your shoes off. Rub your feet back and forth on the carpet. The sensation will make you aware of your body. Then stand, and with your feet spread about shoulder-width apart, push as if you are on a rug and trying to split it in two with your feet. Hold that pose for at least one minute. The sensation of your legs pushing will also bring you back into the lower part of your body, centering you.
Stamp your feet. Standing comfortably, alternating feet, lift each foot and place it firmly back down, feeling the impact of the ground in your legs. Do it for at least 30 seconds.
Jog in place. The repeated impact of your feet on the ground brings blood into your legs and increases your energy flow. Try it for 30 seconds to a minute at a time. This is especially good if you don’t have time to exercise as it can be done even in a hospital hallway while waiting. (Of course, they will look at you a bit oddly!)
Aromatherapy—Smell is a powerful sense and can impact our bodies tremendously, calming them and grounding them. Consider investing in some high quality essential oils such as sandalwood, lemongrass or white rose (particularly for grief). Put a dab on your body or rub it between your hands, close your eyes, and breathe it into your body. (This can be especially effective combined with deep, slow breathing.)
Yoga— If you can, consider dropping in on a local yoga class to see if that helps you handle the stress of the crisis. Hatha yoga, in particular, has several postures that support grounding.
Get a massage—Massage helps you be present in your body and it can provide some nurturing that you may be needing, especially now. Concentrate on any feelings that arise while you’re on the massage table. Let them come up and just flow out of you as your muscles relax. Pay attention to the parts of you that are holding onto the tension so that you can release those muscles more consciously.
In a crisis, we can’t move forward effectively unless we can push off from a position of stability. There will likely be many decisions to be made, emotions to be handled, and challenges to meet. Being centered and grounded allows you to meet each day fully present. And, in a crisis, how you show up may be one of the only things that you CAN control.
Have more questions about how to get through those first few days and hours? Check out the Resources section for an ever evolving list of books, articles, and links that may be helpful. Also, you may want to read Five Ways to Cope When A Crisis First Happens.