Not Getting Tied in a Pandemic Knot

This has proved to be a strange season. We are all a little bit frozen in our soul (this is true whether you are experiencing summer in the Northern hemisphere or winter in the Southern hemisphere). The release of summer here in the States, which everyone longed for and hoped for during March, April and May, has never really arrived. As a collective group our summer exhale never fully “blossomed” or expanded or released. The natural world kept its rhythm, but that has not been true for many of the peoples of the earth. Usually when Springtime ends, school finishes, and the weather warms, everyone relaxes and softens. People go outside, go on trips, get out of the house. New ideas and new initiatives are appropriately postponed. They are forgotten for a time. It’s the part of the year when, as a medical doctor, I can usually take some vacation and people hardly notice.
            Then, towards the beginning of August, there is a broad, predictable social shift. The mood changes. All of a sudden it feels time to get organized, follow through on details, get out the to-do list and be more practical. But the breathing pattern between those two hasn’t had its archetypal rhythm this year. We haven’t been able to breathe in the same way because the usually kinds of summer activities everyone releases into—swimming pools, trips, parties, parks—have been closed or severely limited. We are constantly reminded to be careful about our outside contacts and to instead stay safe at home (a mood which usually belongs to the cold of winter, to a time of quiet introspection). The softening of thought, which allows you to stop thinking about things for a couple of months, has also not come. Everyone’s vigilance has had to stay high the whole summer. 
            As a result, many people right now are experiencing both a lot of fatigue and a lot of anxiety. It is hard to emotionally breathe. We didn’t take a real out-breath, and now we are suddenly supposed to get organized and practical, even when we don’t know what is coming next. The strong planning impulse of late summer is being frustrated by an approaching fall season which feels persistently unpredictable. No one really knows what is going to happen. It is easy to feel tied in a knot.
            We are not as active as usual, and not as relaxed as usual. Life has narrowed.
            That narrowing is actually a sign of illness. A sign of shrinking physiologic flexibility.
            We know this because of different studies measuring heart rate variability–which is the measure of how high your heart rate goes up (usually when you are really exerting yourself, with exercise, stress, high demands), compared to how much your heart can slow (with rest, sleep, deep relaxation)—the range of highest to lowest numbers. When we are generally healthy, then our heart rate varies quite significantly over twenty-four hours (let’s say “peak” heart rate of 145, and “valley” heart rate of 55). On the one side our heart and circulatory system can really respond well when we need to fully engage and then on the other side fully relax, recuperate and regenerate when there are no outside demands. 
            If you do the same heart rate studies in people who are quite ill with chronic disease the range narrows. When we are sick with a significant, long-term illness we often can’t rev-up or calm down (with a heart rate that perhaps ranges from a maximum of 105 to minimum 75 beats per minute). Chronic illness stunts our resilience and responsiveness.
            We are all being challenged to not become stuck in this social and emotional narrowing of the middle.
            How do you untie that knot? You have to consciously push both boundaries!
            You need to find small places where you can fully engage—run, swim, laugh, paint, hike, dig. Find things you can do safely, but without restriction. Get your heart rate up with exertion or enthusiasm. Burn out some cobwebs! Find some places where you can stop holding back and which help you feel capable and alive and connected.
            Then—and this part is equally important—find time to release, fully release. Become a human noodle that just flops around like an over-cooked piece of spaghetti. Constant worry takes a tremendous amount of energy. Worry creates fatigue and it stops us from really recuperating and regenerating. So let go of some of your vigilance, skepticism, anxiety, anger, criticism and grief. Are they really helping you when you carry them around all day, or have some of them overstayed their welcome? Instead: trust more, meditate more, wonder more, listen more, appreciate more, thank more. Lie on the floor for two minutes and breathe. Go outside and lay in some grass. Remember the goodness. 
            We build and maintain our resiliency by supporting and enlarging the middle space. Consciously push out in both directions. It will reduce worry and fatigue; and it will also help all of us find renewed courage and clarity and strong hearts.
Warm greetings,
Dr. Blanning

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