Helping Your Child Feel Secure During The COVIC-19 Crisis
Researcher Stephen Porges discovered that we unconsciously send and receive signals that potentially can have a powerful calming effect on the recipient. Our calming system is called the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). Signals transmitted by the face, by voice quality, and by touch or body-language activate the PNS when they indicate safety,
When a parent’s signals indicate the child is safe physically, the child’s calming system is moderately activated. When the parent’s signals indicate the child is safe both physically and emotionally, the signals fully activate the child’s calming system.
For the signals to convey physical safety, the parent must be calm. For the signals to emotional safety, the parent must be attuned, non-judgmental and non-critical.
Full activation is important. When fully activated, the calming system can completely override the effects of stress hormones such as those triggered by the current crisis. And, how effectively a child will be able to regulate stress as an adult depends on good programming of the PNS based on the interactions that take place early in life between the child and the child’s caregivers. So you are in the driver’s seat. You need good PNS programming to be able to give your child what he or she needs now and in the future.
Good PNS Programming
When stress hormones are released, they grab our attention. Something unexpected is happening. We feel alarmed. And we should. What is going on may be a serious threat. We need alarm to get our attention so we can determine the cause of the alarm, and decide what — if anything — needs to be done about it. After a moment of alarm, if we have good PNS programming, the PNS kicks in and calms us automatically. Automatic calming is essential because clear thinking is needed to deal with the situation if it is an emergency. To think clearly, we need to be cool, calm, and collected, even if a life-threatening situation. In fact, especially in a life-threatening situation. Nowhere else is clear thinking as important.
Not So Good PNS Programming
When stress hormones are released, if our PNS doesn’t kick in, we stay alarmed. With nothing to override the effects of the stress hormones, a state of emotional emergency persists. The feelings of distress continue until the stress hormones burn off.
It’s really very simple. We “install” programming that activates the PNS. We identify a situation in the past that naturally activated the person’s PNS. When the memory is vividly recalled, the memory activates the PNS. What we do next is as simple as what Pavlov did with his dogs: we set up a conditioned response. Through repetition of a linking exercise, we link the feeling of being stressed to the memory that activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
What Memories Activate The PNS?
When activated, the PNS stimulates the vagus nerve. What Porges calls “vagal braking” takes place. Vagal braking overrides the stress hormones, slows the heart rate, slows the breathing rate, and relaxes the gut.
Once a person has trained their mind to automatically activate the PNS, vagal braking begins as soon as they feel alarmed. They may calm down so quickly that they aren’t even aware there was a moment when they felt alarmed.
Anyone can learn to use vagal breaking by reading Panic Free: The 10-Day Program to End Panic, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia and training the mind to activate the parasympathetic nervous system by following step-by-step instructions.
Below is one of the exercises in the book. Use if immediately when you feel stress. The ideal person to link stress to is a person with whom you felt your guard let down. Feeling your guard let down indicates maximum vagal breaking. If you don’t recall someone you felt that with, pick a friend who is easy-going. You need an emotionally safe friend who doesn’t judge or criticize you. The signals that you are completely safe are transmitted by the person’s face, their voice, and their touch. I want you to imagine buttons you can press to calm yourself. The excerpt from the book follows:
The Three-Button Exercise
Imagine your friend has pasted a sticker on their forehead bearing a picture of a button with the number 1 on it. Another sticker, showing button number 2, is pasted on their chin. A third sticker, with button number 3, is pasted on the back of their hand.
Now imagine feeling alarmed. Imagine putting your finger on the button 1 sticker on their forehead and then releasing it. Their face comes clearly to mind. You see the softness in their eyes. It feels good.
Imagine putting your finger on the button 2 sticker. As you release it, the person’s lips begin to move, and you hear them greet you in a special way. You may notice that the quality of their voice calms you deep inside.
Imagine touching the button 3 sticker on the back of their hand. When you release the button, the person lifts their hand and gives you a reassuring touch or a hug — whatever gesture is appropriate in your relationship with this person. You may notice calming stillness rest on you.
You can activate vagal braking by pressing the buttons any time you wish. But we want to set up calming that works automatically. To establish automatic attenuation, intentionally remember feeling alarmed, and then press button 1. Remember the feeling again; press button 2. Bring the feeling to mind again; press button 3.
Repeated use of this exercise can teach the PNS to automatically kick in when calming is needed.
How well does it work? I just posted a video on YouTube in which clients talk about how this method has controlled their anxiety during this crisis.