Martin Rickler, LMFT

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COVID-Mud and the Three Shifts of Perception!

Martin Rickler, MA, PhD, LMFT 94710
COVID-Mud.  I’d like to share a couple of concepts that my therapy clients have found useful. The first concept is that, when we think about it, all of us experience the daily little stressors that come with day-to-day living — Perhaps our friend doesn’t return our call as quickly as we’d want them to. Maybe we are put on hold way too long or the oatmeal boils over? We stub our toe, or our spouse or partner does something irritating! And we all have our own special lists of those things, sometimes minor, sometimes not so minor, that can drive us up the wall on the best of days! These things that bother us on a day-to-day level are now heightened to a major level because of the ever-present stress of being in a world-wide pandemic.

So imagine yourself trudging through a field of deep, wet, and sticky mud where every step you take has to be deliberate and the suction of the mud pulls at your shoes or boots and threatens to leave you barefoot in the morass of stickiness. Let’s call this COVID-Mud!

Now add together those little irritating daily life events and imagine that everything we do has to also be done while trudging through COVID-Mud! Imagine trying to cook while the kitchen floor is flowing with COVID-Mud! or walking to the mailbox through COVID-Mud! or anything we have to do, is now complicated by that irritating ever-present bog of COVID-Mud! Who wouldn’t get even more irritated over all of those minor and not so minor daily stressors?

COVID-Mud is here with us, so perhaps we could be just a little bit more self-forgiving when we get irritated, or when someone pushes our buttons?  But how else to deal with this impact of heightened irritation due from COVID-Mud exacerbating these button-pushes or stress in general? I call this calming action below the Three Shifts of Perception, or Stop-Breathe-Soften.

The Three Shifts of Perception

Stop - Breathe - Soften.  When we notice that we are “starting to lose it!” it may be helpful to realize that we can do something to break the almost inevitable chain of consequence that leads us to emotional dysregulation and that we can change our perception of the process by observing and acting on it. After reviewing many mindfulness intervention techniques I took what I felt were the best of each and combined them into a very brief, 30-second process of self-regulation by shifting our perception three times in succession. I call this The Three Shifts, or Stop, Breathe, Soften.

Stop.  Try getting in the habit of observing yourself and your reactions, your body-feel, several times during the day so that when you start getting irritated or angry you notice it and can label it quickly. “Oh, I’m irritated!” or, “Oh, I’m getting angry!” And then, Stop! Stop whatever you are doing! If you are walking, Stop walking. If you are talking or engaged in a yelling session, just Stop. Stop and notice and identify that you are “losing it!”. At first this should take about four seconds, but it takes practice to really stop whatever you are doing, or to stop talking, arguing or explaining. Don’t try to justify your actions to yourself or to whomever you might be engaged with at the moment. Just Stop in your tracks, and be aware that you’ve stopped in your tracks!

Breathe.  Notice your breath and take in a full, long breath and hold it for a second, then slowly exhale in a long, luxurious breath, long and deep and longer than was your inhale. Then do it again, a second long breath, paying attention to your body as you do this, shifting your awareness to your body-feel, especially in your chest. This might take about eight to ten seconds.

Soften.  Now that you’ve stopped in your tracks and are silent, have taken in a couple of long, luxurious breaths and exhaled fully, pay attention to your muscles and soften them, starting from your head and jaw, to your neck, your chest and arms, your torso and legs. Feel your body soften and feel the tension drain out from your limbs. And as you feel yourself relax, unwind, take another long breath with an even longer exhale. This softening and second breath process may take about ten to fifteen seconds.

Repeat!  After the initial 30-second cycle of the Three Shifts in Perception, it might be helpful to take a few more breaths and slow your breathing. Monitor your body scan and continue to soften your muscles, stretching them or walking a bit.

So Here’s What’s Going On

When we are getting upset, or getting hyper-irritated because of those little things going wrong while we’re trudging through COVID-Mud, or any time we start to “lose it”, it takes a major shift in perception just to realize that we are in the process of dysregulating. And this noticing takes practice!

Name it to Tame it!   The first time we notice we are dysregulating may be after we’ve already stomped off in anger. But we notice it. Then we label it. “I got angry, and I could feel it in my body.” A technique of dysregulation management from Emotional Intelligence is to put a name to the feeling to reduce its power and is called, Name it to Tame it!

But as we become increasingly more aware of our emotional process we become just a little bit more able to do something about it. And it does help to say the words, “I feel angry”, or “I feel hurt”, either to yourself or out loud.

“I can do anything if I breathe and talk slowly.” And it becomes easier to reregulate with successive attempts because we are perpetually in a feedback loop watching our own actions and hearing our own words. Our ears hear our voice getting angry and our brain takes this in and we adopt the habitual reaction to anger and it increases. If we stop talking, stop walking, then we are giving our brain feedback that we can do something about this. I have a motto that goes, “I can do anything if I breathe and talk slowly.” Both the actions of breathing and speaking slowly provide information to your brain that you are calm, even when you aren’t calm inside, and this feedback begins the calming process.

And most people don’t realize that when they are anxious or angry that their breathing rhythm changes. Some people actually stop breathing for a while and then gasp in some air, or some may breathe in short bursts.

Oh Oh! Brain Stuff!   So two things happen when we take those two long breaths and exhale slowly. One is the immediate sensation of air filling and relaxing our lungs and chest and that alone is calming. But also, the part of our nervous system that, among other functions, governs breathing is the autonomic nervous system, and this nervous system has two major parts, the sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for initiating our fight or flight or freezing reactions under stress, and the para-sympathetic nervous system that is responsible for calming us down.

Well, the fight or flight nervous system (Sympathetic) also governs the inhalation process during breathing, while the calming, rest and digest nervous system (Para-sympathetic) governs the exhalation process during breathing. So when we intentionally inhale long and deep, and then exhale even longer than the inhale, we are activating the calming, rest and digest nervous system to calm us down. As we do this, we are changing our perception from one of not even noticing that we might not have been breathing, to one of mindful awareness of our breath and the implementation of self-control.

The “soften” process is a similar change in perceptual awareness and by doing a very swift body scan, noticing how our muscles feel, and intentionally softening our muscles, we are then implementing a more enhanced relaxation process. And with all three of these actions of Stop-Breathe-Soften we are providing our brain with feedback. And the brain is a literal organ that takes in whatever we feed it, and it will quickly observe that we have shifted our perception from increasing dysregulation to stopping that process, that our breathing is now relaxed, and that our muscles are soft, and that brain of ours says, “Oh, I must be calm!” And then we become calmer, more so with each opportunity to try out these new skills.

Ouch! Those Glucocorticoids!! It may also help to know that when we get dysregulated, or “lose it”, that the brain floods the body with hormones that get our body mobilized to fight, run away, or even to freeze us in a panic. These hormones are adrenalin, cortisol, and other glucocorticoids.

When we stop-breath-soften it provides time for that part of the brain that gets us agitated, the amygdala, to calm down, and for some of those hormones to dissipate, but some of those activating hormones will still be floating around the bloodstream for ten to fifteen minutes, or sometimes as much as an hour, and they are agitating and inciting us to react to them. Knowing this goes a long way to help us tolerate the decreasing feeling of agitation till it wears off.

Repeat! So because the stress hormones are still in your bloodstream, it's helpful to repeat the stop-breath-soften cycle a few times over the next ten minutes, stretch your arms and legs, walk, breathe intentionally, and with practice, full calmness will begin to return.

Practice!  It may take practice for you to obtain the full success of the Three Shift process and just reading this will only give you the knowledge of what to do, but not the skills, and that will take repeating practice of the Stop-Breathe-Soften technique.

Other Techniques. There are also other techniques that help to reduces stress or to de-escalate dysregulation so you might find it helpful to consult with a licensed psychotherapist for stress management techniques. There are also many fine books on mindfulness and other types of meditation that can be helpful. 

The “Three Shift” Process

Shift 1:   Stop what you are doing.
               Stop walking, talking, whatever!

Shift 2:  Find your breath and breathe on purpose.
               Not forcing the breath, but a natural breath.
               Now take a couple of deep breaths and release slowly.

 Shift 3: Intentionally soften your body.
               Find your neck, jaw, shoulders, chest, arms and legs

               & relax them.

              Continue breathing and softening.


The Three Shifts

Shift 1:             Stop!

Shift 2:            Breathe.

Shift 3:            Soften.