A number of years ago some friends and I researched and trained a small group of volunteers for a local community service agency. Our desire was to provide a healing sanctuary for kids who’d lost a parent to an automobile accident or to cancer or a heart attack or to any other sad misfortune. Many of the kids who showed up for these groups came reluctantly, with stiffness in their bodies and fear and confusion in their eyes. At the end of a year or sometimes two, our weekly meetings somehow managed to fully transform and resolve that fear and confusion. What took place with and between these kids continues to provide healing lessons for me these many years later.
In some ways, fear operates in us like a Tilt-a-Whirl roller coaster, one that often squeezes us in a double bind. Stress chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline in the body and brain work to get us all riled up, and then Gaba-Goo (Gamma-Amino- butyric Acid) and cortisol get dispatched to try to still the raging waters. These neurochemicals significantly influence and impact what we think and how we think. Stress-based thoughts rarely spring from things happening in the present moment, but they do work to produce the circular effect of re-triggering the stress chemicals; this recursive pattern turns out to leave little room for joy. This thought-generating process was clearly evident with our grieving kids: “What’s going to happen to me?” “Will I ever see my mother again” “Why do the other kids treat me weird?” “Will things ever be okay again?”
What to do? One thing we did was to help create space for the kids to learn about how grief works and how it actually felt in their bodies. In my own body, for example, in fear or grief, I often feel a familiar, uncomfortable kind of body-tension, my breathing gets very shallow and I notice a certain lack of “spaciousness” in my viscera (hollow organs – heart, lungs, stomach, etc.) and brain. It’s like I’m not totally there.
There’s some anecdotal evidence that this is part of a neuro-physiological event that takes place in the brain where the connections between limbic structures and cortical structures become temporarily reduced or turned off so as not to have the thinking brain delay instant reaction to real-world dangers. For example, we wouldn’t live too long if we had to first think about getting out of the way of a car rolling wildly towards us down the hilly Streets of San Francisco.
Another thing we did with the kids was to begin regular practices to help deliberately reduce stress. We designed and built a “Steam Room” – a place with padded walls, pillows and batakas and a heavy punching bag. It was a safe place to express Big Feelings. Lacking a Steam Room, many adults turn to things like MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) or a variety of contemplative practices, like insight meditation or prayer, which also seem to reduce the baseline levels of stress chemicals in the body and brain. (I think it’s an unacknowledged benefit of attending services as part of a faith community – large groups of people in proximity experiencing significantly reduced stress have a measurable effect on one another’s neurophysiology. This “interpersonal neurobiological” effect is also, in part, why watching a movie in a theater is a very different experience than watching one at home alone. Kids helping other kids heal was also in evidence as a regular part of our pilot program).
There are other practices that can work to lower fear-based stress as well. We know that aerobic exercise works to reduce levels of neurotoxins. Lots of studies have confirmed that. So does yoga, or tai chi, or Pilates, or even simply walking. So does something called 7-11 breathing, where you breathe in to a count of seven, and then breathe out to a count of 11. Doing this clears the lungs of air with a lower oxygen content, replacing it with a more oxygen-rich substitute. Increasing oxygen in the blood increases its supply to the brain, and increased oxygen to the brain is generally regarded as a good thing. Yoga has also been anecdotally found to reduce stress chemicals in the body and brain, as have the exercises associated with Smart Moves or Brain Gym. So does crying. At our children’s program, we did our best to establish a compassionate environment where it was safe to cry.
One of my own self-management practices that I have been using for years, which I find very helpful across a wide variety of fear-generating circumstances, is the repetition of a “mantra” of my own creation. A mantra is essentially a symbol or poem that works to affect neurophysiology. One that I have made up and used successfully (when I can remember to actually use it) is: “In this moment, everything’s all right.” The night our little training group first set up to receive our inaugural group of grieving kids, I remember using this mantra a lot. Turns out the kids were nothing that needed to be feared in the least. And more than twenty years later they still aren’t.