THE UNDER TOAD
We are half way through the year 2020, a year synonymous with pandemic and lockdown, a year that, to many, represents loss in time, life and income while overladen with so many unanswered questions.
The accumulative effect of this is not always that overt. People valiantly try to keep it together maintaining a positive front, while all the while belying the inner truth of an insidious anxiety coupled with a very human need for connection.
Is this the under toad, as Walt, the son of Garp in John Irving’s novel “The World According to Garp”, called the undertow – he misheard the word in warnings announced at the beach. Under toad sounds far more descriptive and apt to describe a dangerous threat.
Images come to mind of a big toad lurking beneath the surface of the sea (“everyday life”),
waiting for you to enter its powerful grip and carry you away from the shore (“peace” or “your normal”).
Warning and precaution can be life saving, but constant warnings can generate other problems – sowing the seeds of worry can grow into anxiety and panic which in turn can cause serious health problems. To put it briefly, the path of continual worrying puts a physical process into motion preparing you to face the threat, as in fight or flight. Your brain does not distinguish between a physical threat or otherwise, and obviously in this situation, you do not actually fight the proverbial sabre-toothed tiger, nor do you flee.
But the strain of constantly preparing to fight or flee can result in serious health conditions.
How much more vigilant can one be than adhering to the prescribed precautions? And unless you are actively involved in the pandemic as in, for example, research or health care, the situation is out of your control. So what is the benefit of constant worrying? There isn’t one, but as a result many hours of your day are deprived of peace and even enjoyment?
You may feel, though, that the worry is inescapable or congealed into your subconscious.
So what can you do?
First of all stop watching the news. With the dictum of ‘bad news sells’, the death rate will never be counterbalanced by the recovery rate.
And so the under toad grows.
There are a couple of processes that are simple yet effective in helping to release you from the worry snare.
Deep diaphragmatic breathing with a longer and slower exhalation is an excellent start. The reason for this lies in the vagus nerve – a wandering nerve with two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brain stem, and that wanders to the lowest reaches of the abdomen touching major organs along the way.
There is a feedback loop between this nerve and the brain, whereby the state of the internal organs is relayed back to the brain. Without going into the whole process, suffice it to say that a longer exhalation is tantamount to putting the brakes on rising anxiety. Think about what happens when you do feel anxious or panicky, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. So consciously doing the opposite, as in slow, deep breathing with longer exhalations sends a message of calm back to the brain.
Shifting the focus of your thinking is another process to practise. Become aware of your internal narrative as your thoughts generate feelings. Acknowledge the feeling and the reason for it, coupled with the realisation that it is about matters beyond your control.
Then shift the focus of your thoughts on to other things that are pleasant – something that genuinely pleases you. In fact draw up a list of things that you love. It can include anything from
good coffee to your partner or spouse, your children, your pets, a movie that you loved, a book, poem, piece of music or song,
a very happy event in your life, a holiday you had or are going to have, your garden,
your hobby, the sea, the forest, mountains and so on.
These are your “go to’s” for every time your mind wanders off into dark and anxiety-riddled subjects. Immerse your senses in each of the items on your list. Stay there until an inner smile infuses your being. Keep at this process until the power of panic that was, feels seriously diluted and too weak to enslave your mental time.
Brother David Steindl-Rast, author, scholar and Benedictine monk is known for a saying which he regards as the foundation of everything and, the only thing you can say:
“Trust in life”
If you look back on your life, he believes, even the worst things that happened, turned out to be life giving.
It may be difficult to recognise the saplings of opportunity and potential now, but a silver lining or two may be glimpsed, and certainly for the earth.
The under toad cannot win.
The sea will always return you to the shore.