‘Dear Voices, thank you.’
How befriending your fears can quiet the voices in your head, making lockdown more peaceful
Covid 19 has brought with it a plethora of fears and anxieties. Whether consciously or not, we are all dealing with loss of freedom, loss of control, uncertainty, mortality, isolation. Our amygdala (the fire alarm in the brain responsible for threat-detection) knows something’s up and is constantly trying to warn us by sending loud, unignorable signals through our bodies. Back in the day, these signals were designed to keep us safe from tigers; they were literally saving our lives. However that part of the brain is still very rudimentary, not having evolved at the same rate as our lifestyles, and only really has two settings, on or off. So at the moment, despite the situation not being immediately life-threatening for most of us, it’s default mode is on. Hence, anxiety is rife and we are on high alert (in fight, flight or freeze mode), making it difficult to relax and just be. We are powerless to fight, not permitted to flee, so the only alternative is to freeze. In this somewhat paralyzed state, we react by trying to cognitively problem solve, but sadly we can’t think ourselves out of a global pandemic. So the thoughts get trapped, unable to provide solutions, becoming louder and faster (and often, by the way, completely unrelated to Corona virus itself) until they’re as all consuming as the feelings that triggered them. Suddenly we’re stuck inside a body that starts to feel like our worst enemy: the thinking becomes incessant, an egoic meta-narrative describing everything we do, not leaving us alone and creating an increasingly peace-sapping duality between our ego and our essence.
You may have found already that trying to solve this problem cognitively - applying logic, repeating mantras, maybe willing yourself to snap out of it, using positive psychology - are not enough to turn down the radio station of your mind. Bessel A. van der Kolk, psychotherapist and author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, says, ‘Psychologists usually try to help people use insight and understanding to manage their behavior. However...very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.’
What is needed is a profound shift at the source of the dissonance. We must realise that what we perceive as our problems: self-doubt, anger, anxiety, irritation; or strange behaviours such as acting out, crying unexpectedly, starting arguments for no reason, feeling volatile or easily confused, are all various different byproducts of a heightened amygdala response; outward manifestations of a deeper fear. And what is fear, really? It’s our bodies’ way of trying to protect us from getting hurt: in blame, we fear responsibility; in jealousy, we fear abandonment; in anger we fear having to face a deeper sadness; in numbness we fear vulnerability because with vulnerability comes the prospect of being hurt, and so on. The real problem is our misinterpretation of fear as something to be scared of, to push down like an inflatable ball in a pool; it’s our inability to acknowledge that all our perceived problems stem from our own attempts to protect ourselves.
When our perception shifts in this way; when we truly understand that our body is looking out for us more than anyone in the world, we feel humbled. We realise that what we thought were problems or demons or shortcomings aren’t at all. The voices in our heads are our ultimate ally, our best friends. Only, like helicopter parents, they tend to go overboard and cause us more angst than the thing they’re trying to protect us from in the first place. Dr Alex Korb makes this point in his book ‘The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, saying ‘my life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.’.
So how do we go deeper and create a shift? We first have to start from where we are, not from where we want to be. This means acknowledging the fear and sitting with it, feeling it. Allowing it to be there. Investigating it - where is it, how is it manifesting itself? Dr Alex Korb says that ‘Acceptance...teaches that how you feel is simply how you feel. It’s neither good nor bad. It just is.’ Emotion is really just energy for which our bodies are containers. We have to let that life force into its own home otherwise it will unquestionably break an entry further down the line. Once we can see it for what it is, we realise it doesn’t control our lives anymore. We can coexist, allowing these feelings to come and go whilst feeling deeply grateful to them for having our back in such a profound way. As Bessel A. van der Kolk says, ‘the only way we can change the way we feel is by becoming aware of our inner experience and learning to befriend what is going on inside ourselves.’
Writing your own letter to the voices in your head can be a transformative exercise. Don’t think too much about what you’re writing, just let it out. See if you feel any different afterwards.