It took six seconds recently for me to figure out the day was Tuesday, and the time was 10:00 am. Six seconds to shake that feeling of terror that the air raid siren I was hearing while I was out on a walk in my Chicago area neighborhood, was really the weekly local emergency test.
But for that moment, I thought the unthinkable. In that moment, the six seconds allowed me to shift from the “fight, flight, freeze” center in my brain to the reasoning and logic portion, realizing I was safe.
I am safe in Chicago, in the U.S., but families trying to survive in Ukraine experience this panic moment constantly as the devastation and daily deaths continue. Recent reports of Russian bombings and aggression resulted in the deaths of 176 children, hundreds more injured, and millions of people displaced.
In the U.S., many report they are consistently dealing with this “on-edge feeling” since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. It lasted through the uncertainty about COVID-19 and how to fight it; through the civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd and so many more shootings; the ongoing political unrest stemming from the election and the January 6 attack on the Capitol; and the divisiveness around the vaccine.
Globally, Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine has tossed the world into sanctions and military standoff between superpowers. All of this disruption and distress in the U.S. and abroad is taking a toll on mental health.
The World Health Organization recently reported anxiety and depression increased by 25% globally. Among healthcare workers the exhaustion has been a trigger for suicidal thoughts.
Many report their brains are sizzling with anxiety, and in chemical overdrive which affects decision-making and possibly causing hair-trigger reactions. Many report they been unable to catch a break, as their brains continue to be bathed in cortisol (primary stress hormone) due to the panic and the reactionary stance so many are living in.
Many report difficulty controlling anger, plus being irritable, less tolerant and even uncivil. To survive, many report needing to take time to tame the reptilian brain which controls every second of everyone’s life.
As a nurse for 44 years and the Wellness Liaison at the Center for Clinical Wellness at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, I have seen the effects of this heightened alert stance many are finding intolerable.
Healthcare professionals ask how to find peace in this hyper alert state, how to proactively calm a patient or family who is reactionary, or how to manage the comments from overburdened co-workers so they can calm themselves enough to focus on saving lives and not become another statistic in the Great Resignation. Research shows 19% of all those not retired quit their jobs in 2021. The pandemic was reason enough for many, but working too many hours and feeling disrespected were also among the top reasons.
One possible solution to this hyper-alert state is the six second rule. When feeling threatened, the amygdala (or reptilian center) in the brain, alerts the brain in a split second to danger. This is commonly called the Flight or Fight response. Psychologist Daniel Goldman first noted it in 1995 when discussing emotional intelligence. When the feelings of being threatened continue as in the pandemic and ongoing moments of uncertainty in the last two years, it is common to become reactionary.
When reacting. it takes six seconds for the stress hormones to dissipate allowing the brain to get back to logic and reasoning, calming the nervous system and finding healthy ways to tolerate the uncertainty.
For millions in this country and across the globe, enduring the stress of the pandemic and fallout from domestic injustice added to the news of war crimes and horrors in Ukraine, is a daily concern. There are simple strategies that may help with coping.
Take six seconds to think about something that makes you smile, something you can be grateful for like the hot shower you will have or the food in your refrigerator. The brain releases endorphins when you are grateful. These “feel good” chemicals can calm anxiousness and decrease the cortisol level.
Take six seconds to send a text complimenting or appreciating someone in your life. Gratitude is one of the best self-care actions. Take six seconds to find a trustworthy source where you can do one small thing for Ukraine or another cause close to your heart.
Take six seconds to acknowledge your emotional reaction. Research shows anger is a secondary emotion. Take a breath to allow yourself to investigate what is really happening. If you are embarrassed, feeling intimidated, disappointed, or fearful and this is something that happens more now than before the pandemic, try acknowledging it as a sign your body needs to find ways to manage the powerful reactions before you speak out or strike out in an effort to release the built-up tension.
Perhaps coaching or therapy could help. Caring for mental health is just as important as physical health to function properly and lead a healthy life.
Take six seconds to take a breath. Three deep breaths can help shift that neuro pathway in your brain from the fight, fright, freeze reaction center, to that logic and reasoning center. The more you can catch yourself before the emotion is evident to others, the brain learns to take that pathway and it becomes faster and easier to recognize it is happening. Each time you repeat that maneuver you can learn to calm your brain.
Maintaining hydration and approximately seven hours of sleep will also help to keep your brain and body in the best condition so you can make that six second shift from reacting to reasoning.
Even when you witness tragic news and see unthinkable horrors happening before your eyes, think about what you do have. Six seconds can be the start of what you need to keep going.
As part of our “You Said It” Op-Ed series, we invite contributors to submit their opinion pieces. Have a submission? Contact us.
More from Better:
- 7 Healthy Recipes to Keep Your New Year’s Resolution on Track
- Where to Travel in 2022: 5 of the Best Places to Visit This Year
- Helping Women Achieve Their Most Important Financial Goals
Judy Friedrichs is the Wellness Liaison at Rush University Medical Center, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.