This is the second installment in a series about using Neuroscience Hacks for Library School. Here’s the first one on reasons to get more sleep.
One evening, in the last couple months leading up to the election, my missus and I were out on our daily, ritual walk around the park like dozens of other couples in our neighborhood. On the street behind us, a group of young white men drove by and nearly took out a bicyclist as they slammed on the brakes to screech around a corner. We didn’t realize they were back until the bottle hit me and the liquid sprayed our bodies. We could hear the rise and fall of their bigoted insults and laughter as I thought: Is it water or urine? Are they driving on or coming back? Is she okay? Was our little dog hit?
This was just one incident of many, and as a queer, gender non-conforming POC, my missus experiences the bulk of it. It’s happening every day and it’s becoming more frequent.
I know we’re not alone in this, and you may relate to feeling a little anxious this past year too. Many of us are facing very real and growing threats to our health, safety, and lives , to our homes, to the planet on which we are dependent, and to our civil rights. When I began writing this article last week, I wanted to talk about a basic physiological hack for dealing with the stress of grad school in these uncertain times with you. Then our country experienced another surge in the visibility and presidential support of white nationalism, and it’s all I can think about.
The legitimization of hatred, including the events in Charlottesville, Virginia this weekend, is designed to promote fear and anxiety among any group of people not represented by the white men and women who marched with torches and weapons. We saw a glimpse of the horrors people face across the country every day when a vehicle was used to maim and murder anti-racist protesters this weekend. The continual stoking, through public displays and seemingly off the cuff tweets, of fear and anxiety is a type of psychological warfare.
Even though we may understand the purpose of these demonstrations—to keep us on edge—it’s hard not to feel this anxiety every day. It’s hard not to fear for the safety of friends and family. It’s hard not to worry if the verbal attacks on my missus will escalate.
Hitting the Reset Button
Throughout the day, I’ll take a quick body inventory and realize that, after checking the news for fresh horrors in between finishing a work project and writing a paper, I’ve built up some tension in my gut. Many factors contribute to the tension, but it is often characterized by shallow, chest-based breathing.
When things are going well, the parasympathetic nervous system communicates to the organs that it’s time to “rest and digest”. As in, there’s no looming disaster, we can take care of the basics now like processing nutrients and putting our tiny organ feet up. The problem is that when we’re feeling the pressure of work and school and relationships and the threat of nuclear war, it’s really tough for the parasympathetic nervous system to get a word in edgewise. The sympathetic nervous system—the one responsible for getting the systems all riled up and ready to “fight, flight, or freeze” with increased heart rate and respiration, steals the show.
Taking deep, slow breaths from our belly (as opposed to our chest) can essentially reset the signals that the central nervous system is sending our organs. There is a “breathing pacemaker” situated in our brain stem, with neurons dedicated to helping us relax, that communicates when it’s time to take a load off the system. Consciously stopping to take a few breaths from our gut can hack the signal to the rest of our body that things are going to be okay and it’s time for the parasympathetic nervous system to take the reins. Once we’re relatively relaxed, we have a chance to think clearly and focus on what’s important to us.
I have been using this hack A LOT the past few days as I’m reading, writing, and heading out to protest. What are some of the strategies you use to relax?