Emergencies are loud, intense, exciting, chaotic. They demand our full, focused attention. When survival is at stake, there is no time for rest, repair, or pause for thought. The body goes into debt for energy, sleep, and nutrients, planning to make it up after the emergency is over.
The essence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a continuing state of emergency after surviving the initial trauma. The body has not yet received the news that safety is restored, and insists, “Do something!“, even when there is nothing immediate to do.
Emergency Mode can manifest as ongoing anxiety about current problems. When the nervous system is already on high alert, it tinges everything with urgency and panic. When the nervous system calms down, current issues can shrink from huge obstacles to manageable annoyances.
We may long for peace, but not recognize or adapt to it when it arrives. Infant nervous systems learn calmness from surrounding adults. When children grow up surrounded by people in Emergency Mode, they miss learning how safety feels. The lack of an emergency feels like an absence, another problem to be solved, rather than the presence of quiet.
You are already enough
In Emergency Mode, our Inner Critic monitors and corrects our behavior to keep us safe. The Inner Critic barks commands because in an emergency it seems there is no time to be gentle or kind. We try to get out of Emergency Mode by criticizing ourselves and commanding ourselves to relax, intensifying the problem.
In contrast to the Inner Critic’s approach, find an exit from Emergency Mode by creating space to be exactly who you are right now. You do not have to become someone else to survive.
Connect with your urgency
To find calmness, make contact with your sense of urgency, without allowing it to take over. Take your time to describe how it feels in this moment.
- “Something in me feels like I can’t sit still.”
- “Something in me feels braced for disaster.”
- “Something in me believes I’m barely making it.”
- “Something in me is always terrified.”
As you find words or images, also notice where the sensation lives in your body. Say a gentle hello to anything you notice.
Sense the present
If the sense of urgency becomes overwhelming, consciously notice your present surroundings. Out loud, name what you see, hear, and sense. Ask yourself if you are in physical danger in this moment. Feel your breath moving through your body. You are alive. You are surviving.
Remind yourself that you made it through emergencies in the past and have more resources now. You have an adult’s size, strength, and skills, and each year brings more wisdom and experience. Push down through your heels to feel your length, and push out through your elbows to feel your width.
Give urgency more room
If your sense of urgency is contained in a small area of your body, try allowing it more room. Start with a small increase. Paradoxically, emotions are usually less overwhelming if they can move through a larger space. Many of us formed our strategies for handling overwhelming emotions as physically tiny toddlers. As adults, we have a much larger capacity available.
If a current problem feels insurmountable, take some time to acknowledge your specific feelings around the problem. Gently ask if any of these are old feelings, echoes of old emergencies. What if the emergency is over?
When we are caught up in Emergency Mode, we overlook possible solutions to current problems. Make a list of ways you could reach out for help. Even if you choose not to do any of them, it helps you remember your available options.
Ask yourself, “What if this problem is already solved?” In that alternate reality, how would you feel? What would you be doing? What if you truly do not need to take any action?
You might find that you can put the problem down for now. You might find that unexpected solutions pop into your head. Your body might continue to insist, “Danger! Danger!” Ask yourself if there is any action that feels self-protective in the moment. Whether the sense of danger is from the past or present, you do not have to ignore it or push it away.
Is your physical environment irritating your nervous system and contributing to a sense of emergency? Notice your sensitivities and avoid them when you can. As you move toward a calmer environment both internally and externally, your body will more easily exit Emergency Mode.
As Julia Ross describes in The Mood Cure, long-term Emergency Mode can deplete the body of nutrients. Supplements can support recovery by replenishing depleted stores.
Take time to be kind
Emergency Mode can increase our defensiveness when survival feels threatened, and can cause conflict if someone disagrees that a problem is urgent. Keep in mind that each nervous system evaluates a situation based on individual past history and current resources. Even in an emergency, take time to be kind, both to others and yourself.
You might experience a dramatic exit from Emergency Mode if your body suddenly notices, “Oh, you’re right, the emergency is over!” More likely, you will notice subtle shifts at first, where you feel less desperate less often, and recover a little more quickly from unpleasant surprises. Instead of questioning your perceptions as false hope, gather your subtle signs of progress and believe that you have rounded the corner.
The Mood Cure by Julia Ross contains nutritional suggestions to support a calm nervous system.