For many people, “the day to day stressors of the pandemic on top of world tragedies such as the earthquake and floods in Haiti and the debacle in Afghanistan can overwhelm us with emotion,” says Rev. Connie L. Habash, MA, LMFT, licensed psychotherapist, yoga and meditation teacher, interfaith minister, and author of Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life. Global disasters not only have far-reaching and immediate consequences for the human brain and body but also long-term effects due to sustained trauma.
Humans feel compassion for others as a natural instinct, and when things are outside of your control, such as the spread of the coronavirus at large for example, it’s hard to not feel helpless and sad. “This is especially true for highly sensitive persons (HSPs), who feel empathy more strongly than most,” says Habash.
People tend to take on the emotions of others, wreaking havoc on their own emotions and nervous system. And if you know you’re a highly sensitive person (or suspect that you may be one), it’s even more important to have ways to honor those feelings but not hold them deep inside your body, where it will bring about stress and anxiety.
“It can cause stress, anxiety, and even physical problems as a result,” says Habash. This kind of trauma can linger, lasting in the body unless it’s properly released through therapeutic remedies and a change in emotional state. Here are a few beneficial practices for alleviating stress and anxiety as well as releasing trauma from these painful events occurring around the world.
1. Scream Therapy
Anything that you can do to express and release pent up emotions while not hurting others in the process can be helpful. “You can scream in your car, a closet, or into a pillow if you need more privacy,” she says.
“This practice will help move the upset out of your body and you’ll often feel some relaxation in the body afterwards,” she adds. Follow it up with a gentle self-care practice such as self-massage, a bath or a gentle yoga flow or candlelit yoga class.
Try this 20-minute calming yoga flow:
“Working with the breath is very effective at calming the nervous system, particularly emphasizing the exhalation, which stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (inducing a ‘rest and relax’ response),” says Habash.
Invite your inhalation to deepen for a count of four, and then pause for a moment before taking a long exhalation for a count of six. “Adjust the count or ratio for your capacity, and if possible, work towards an exhalation that is twice as long as the inhalation,” she says.
A simple alternative, visualization can be a good tool as well. “Imagine deeply breathing in peace, and exhaling it out to the world, practicing this for five minutes, and then breathing normally to relax,” she suggests. This kind of breath work not only calms the body, but also it gives the mind a focus to clear out obsessive thoughts and get rid of trauma.
3. Dancing or “shaking” trauma away
Dancing is not only fun and a workout, but also it can be especially useful for clearing trauma. “This is one of my favorite practices for releasing stress and trauma,” says Habash. “According to Peter Levine, author of Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, animals shake their bodies vigorously to release stress and trauma,” she says. The “shaking” or dancing works well for humans, too.
Stand with your feet hip-distance apart for stability. Allow yourself to move freely and spontaneously, without overthinking or going into this dance or “shaking” with a plan in mind. Enjoy the movements that naturally arise.
“If you aren’t sure what to do, just start gently shaking your arms and legs, anywhere that feels good or you can also release through dance,” she says. Express your frustration, worry, stress, anger, or sorrow–any pent up feelings from trauma–through movement, such as stomping, jumping, spinning, and wiggling. After a few minutes, pause to notice your sensations, take some deep breaths and then enjoy some time for relaxation with a reduction in negative emotion.
4. “The Woodchopper”
This is a quick and easy exercise to help relieve stress through the use of breath and vigorous movement. “Make sure you start off slow and easy, and modify for any physical limitations or injuries (for example, if you have back issues, keep your knees bent as you bend forward or skip this altogether),” says Habash.
Stand with your feet hips-distance apart. Interlace your fingers in front of you with straight arms. As you inhale, raise your arms up overhead. On the exhalation, with gently bent knees, bend forward while swinging your arms down as if you were holding an ax and chopping wood, with a vigorous exhale.
Let yourself hang in the forward bend for a moment before slowly rolling up. “You might like to make a sound as you ‘chop your wood’ to let even more energy out,” she says. Repeat a few times until you feel invigorated, where the worries and stressors have loosened their hold on you.
5. Compassion for self
“We are usually very good at feeling compassion for others, but neglect to extend that caring and understanding to ourselves, so let go of comparing your situation with that of others, and just take a few moments to be attentive to your own feelings,” says Habash.
It’s helpful to integrate touch into this practice too. Place one hand on your heart and the other on your belly. Then imagine inhaling compassion in as you breathe deeply into your belly and up to the heart, and as you exhale, extend that compassion out to all other beings to spread the love.
“Visualize and feel what it would be like to experience that compassion for your suffering as it is doing kindness to yourself as well as others,” she says. Practice this exercise for a few minutes, and as you feel more filled with self-compassion, you’ll be better able to gently hold the difficulties in this world and not let the trauma affect you too much on a regular basis.
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