Keep Your Body Moving Through COVID-19Emily Pantalone, Founder & East Coast Director of Feet on the Ground
I lower my laptop screen with a big smile on my face and my body enlivened with play. Ever since the quarantine began, I’ve been FaceTime-ing with my nephews every few days to “play yoga.” Even though this usually turns into me and my sister doing kids yoga songs by ourselves while the boys get distracted, or us watching as 4-year-old Enzo does somersaults by himself over and over (it’s never my turn!), it brings such a big smile to my face and joy to my heart. In this era of social distancing, it has been important for me to find these moments of connection, not just through words and faces, but through my body as well.
The current global situation is very confusing for our bodies. Humans did not evolve to be still, nor to be separated from others. Since we evolved in groups, relying on others for survival, it makes sense that we would first look for our tribe in times of distress. Many of us need social interaction with others in order to feel safe. What happens, then, when we are denied access to this resource of safety? Right now our safety relies on distancing ourselves from others – so what do our brains and bodies do when we are forced to override our instinct to be with others in times of crisis?
Forced separation in times of crisis is stressful, and our bodies may thus move into a stress response. For many of us this means the activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, experienced as a “fight” or “flight” instinct. This response is fundamentally active — heart rate is higher, blood concentrates in the arms and legs, and long-term and restorative body functions like cell regeneration and immune function are deprioritized to face the immediacy of the threat of the moment. This is all incredibly helpful if the particular “threat” we face requires an active response. Unfortunately, COVID-19 does not. Our physiology is ready for an active emergency, when the necessary response to COVID is actually to stay put and avoid others. Furthermore, being in a chronic state of fight or flight lowers our immune system’s ability to fight off disease, making us more vulnerable to the virus.
The opposite of feeling threat or stress is feeling safe. Luckily there are many ways to create a physiological sense of safety within the body, allowing us to move out of the autonomic stress response even in the absence of the social connection we are used to. One excellent way to combat the challenge posed by social disconnection is by finding safety and connection within ourselves through conscious movement. Just by moving, we engage the body’s natural instinct to be active and afford ourselves the opportunity to change a physiological sense of helplessness into agency. Movement (and especially conscious movement) requires us to pay attention to the body in the present moment, recruiting areas of the brain that mediate how we think about ourselves in relation to the world around. This changes the direction of our thoughts and can create a meaningful connection to ourselves that may mimic social connection.
When we do not feel safe, our brains also engage with the world as if there is threat, prioritizing external and internal cues that feed this narrative. If instead, we direct the mind to notice that our immediate environment is safe, we empower the conscious mind to override the automatic stress response. Deeply instinctual actions like turning the head to orient to the environment, allowing the eyes and ears to scan, directing the mind to do an internal assessment by noticing temperature, heart rate, breath, and other physiological cues – all combat the narrative of threat around us. When what you see, hear, and notice is that this present moment is safe, the body self-regulates away from vigilance of threat and toward restorative function. For example, as I notice my back muscles stretch to the left and right, as I hear the sounds of birds outside my window, I connect to myself and I am safe.
The kindest things you can do for yourself in this crisis are to 1) move the body, while 2) practicing this present-moment awareness. This is why Enzo and I like to play “superhero noticing,” “Make a Pizza with Your Body” and “I feel calm and still like water when…” Through mindful movement we give the brain and body a tool for self-regulation, combating isolation, overwhelm, disconnection, and fear. We cultivate a physiological feeling of safety, in a time when the world may feel anything but safe.
Below is a very simple Conscious Movement practice that you can try with your roommate, your cat, or on your own. It is a part of Beyond Conflict’s Field Guide for Barefoot Psychology. I have the pleasure of collaborating on this project through my non-profit Feet on the Ground, which is dedicated to providing accessible mental health interventions through education and somatic practices, grounded in neuroscience.
Our bodies love to move – to stretch and yawn, to balance on one leg, to growl like a lion, or run like a puppy in snow. However, you choose to move, tap into your self-regulating instincts and let it be what the body is asking for.