By Mary Carpenter
“THERE IS nothing worse than finally seeing the light, only to be plunged again in darkness,” is a saying from the Balkans quoted in Jelena Kecmanovic’s Washington Post article on stress relief. For the stress arising anew from the Covid pandemic in autumn, 2021, Kecmanovic offers practical strategies, including several that involve ice.
And “Be Here Now” is back, along with other popular mantras for repeating throughout the day, to create calm by focusing on the present. Pandemic-related stress can come from feelings of dread and having little control — in the face of a threat that was at first new and unfamiliar and is now both worrisome and confusing, according to Every Memory Deserves Respect, written by trauma survivor Michael Baldwin in conjunction with Cambridge, Mass. psychotherapist Deborah Korn.
But for people who have experienced serious trauma—especially the psychological trauma of early childhood—reading about patients dying can trigger unresolved grief. The authors write: “For individuals with significant trauma histories… the sense of vulnerability, uncertainty and terror [triggers] memories of previous adversity, loss” – and of powerlessness, isolation and loneliness from their childhoods.
Especially vulnerable are those who missed out on early close attachments to caretakers. “The attachment system can be thought of as the psychological version of the immune system,” the book quotes Harvard psychology professor Karlen Lyons-Ruth. “Without this foundation of security, people are more vulnerable to getting derailed by trauma…handicapped in their ability to self-regulate and recover.”
Explaining how early trauma lives in the body and is thus unreachable by “talk-therapy,” the book describes a therapeutic treatment called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) that can help reduce the vividness and emotion of traumatic memories. EMDR helped Michael Baldwin recover from debilitating phobias traced to a psychologically damaging childhood (which both authors believe was ignored in his six previous therapies because Baldwin’s privileged background “effectively kept his therapists from seeing the signs of his past abuse and neglect”). Another possibility—recently suggested for use in combination with EMDR, as well as with talk therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)— is virtual reality (VR) immersion therapy, similar to exposure therapy. Reproducing the original trauma with images seen in a VR visor —along with sounds and smells —while the wearer is in a safe environment can make traumatic memories more manageable. VR treatment has also been helpful for coping with phobias, and for reducing anxiety and other mental health issues.
Among accessible strategies for coping with stress, Acceptance and Commitment therapy (ACT) advocates “reconnecting with your values,” Robert Walser, psychology professor who teaches ACT at UCBerkeley, told the Wall Street Journal.
Walser suggests an exercise that begins with thinking of a happy memory, then figuring out what in that event meant most to you and naming it, and then acting: for example, if a memory of a day at the beach makes you think of “connection,” phone an old friend or family member.
“Acceptance is the opposite of getting stuck,” University of Michigan neuroscientist Ethan Kross told the WSJ. Kross suggests “linguistic distancing”—talking to yourself as another person might, in the third person —because our brains access different resources and we make wiser judgments when we think of someone else’s circumstances rather than our own.
Slowing down— pausing when you finish a task to take three breaths or doing small tasks at half your normal speed can help calm the physiological stress response and make it easier to move forward. Repetition of the mantra “Be Here Now” comes up among those suggested by ACT to affirm the value you place on slowing down.
Among Kecmanovic’s suggestions, submerging your face in ice-cold water while holding your breath activates the diving reflex, “your inner dolphin,” which diminishes anxiety by redirecting blood away from the periphery of the body toward the heart and other vital organs and slowing the heart rate. Using ice can move attention into the present and away from ongoing fears to help allow for a reset, Kecmanovic writes.
An icy alternative involves holding ice packs against the eyes, upper cheeks and temples while leaning over and holding your breath. In either case, the recommended time is 15 to 30 seconds —with the caveat that those with low blood pressure or heart problems should get prior medical clearance.
Holding ice cubes in the hand is among sensory distractions suggested to provide a psychological break from stress—along with chewing a hot pepper and smelling a pungent cheese. Sucking on a lemon, even in the imagination, can make you salivate—which engages the parasympathetic nervous system and in turn leads to relaxation, according to New Market, Ontario psychotherapist Sheri Van Djik.
Another stress-reducing mantra involves reciting alphabetical lists — colors, flowers, car models, names of states. Value-affirming mantras, on the other hand, can offer mood boosts along with distraction—for example, listing three recent accomplishments, no matter how small, such as making a dental appointment.
One mantra that has helped me with stressful situations, such as some family visits, comes from a former therapist: “I love what I do—my life, my work my friends, my life.” But now I look forward to trying ice, which has helped me with difficulties such as sore joints and cold sores, in the hopes of channeling that inner dolphin.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine.