We are bombarded daily with new updates about the COVID-19 virus. News outlets and social media share sad tales about the unfortunate souls who fell ill and never recovered. We watch the number of countries with active outbreaks rise, worrying when the virus will arrive at our doorsteps. Today, we watched the stock market plunge 1190 points because of the virus. The news outlets are doing what they do best, fanning the flames of fear—and the new COVID-19 virus is the perfect bellows. For most people, the fear shows up as worrying; “what if?” thinking. But for those in benzo withdrawal, the fear can manifest in much larger proportions and challenge us in ways that can be almost overwhelming. Let’s take a look at what we can do to help navigate these unsettling days.
It’s important to remember that the COVID-19 virus is usually a mild infection in 80% of the cases. That’s a bit of a bright spot in all the dark news of late. Not everyone who falls ill is in a life or death situation. If the virus makes its way to your community, and you do get it, your chances are very good that you won’t have a catastrophic infection. But let’s look at that sentence again. See that small, almost inconsequential word at the very beginning? “IF.” Fear rides on the back of “If.” When we worry about something that may happen in the future, we’ve left the peace of this present moment. In this present moment, as you read these words, You. Are. Safe. True, you may have benzo withdrawal symptoms, but there is no real threat to your physical safety. There is no sabertooth tiger just outside your door, waiting for you. One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to stop time-traveling into the future and stay grounded in the present moment.
Remember, the benzo we took downregulated our GABA receptors, resulting in our heightened perception of danger, even when there is none. Our threat detection circuitry fires off over the simplest of things—a falling leaf, the sound of a dog barking, the shadows in our room. The world feels dark, ominous, and foreboding, even when the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and all is well. Add the doom and gloom the news outlets, and everyone and their Aunt Mildred are sharing on social media and it’s easy to see why people in benzo withdrawal may be reacting intensely to what they are reading, seeing, and hearing about the virus. Everyone in benzo withdrawal needs to understand that their degree of anxiety about the virus probably doesn’t match the reality about the virus, but instead, it reflects the state of their GABA-impaired nervous system. That impaired nervous system has some structural issues due to the high levels of glutamate, driving doom and gloom and fear. One of those structural issues is with the binding protein (Nectin 3) that keeps neurons at just the precise spacing so that neurotransmitters can travel as needed. Too much glutamate sets off a chain reaction that ultimately ends with Nectin 3 being severed, and it can’t do its job. Without precision spacing, the neurotransmitters can’t get to where they need to be, causing an “unraveling” of the whole neural network. Translation: rational thought goes out the window, and we operate with an impoverished network. Fear, anxiety, worry, gloom, and the like have a field day with us. What can we do, given that we aren’t able to magically repair the damaged GABA receptors and force glutamate levels down?
We learn to recognize that our anxiety about “what might happen” is simply a body function. It is a reaction of our nervous system and is no more significant than any other body function. I’ve made people laugh in the past (a good thing in benzo withdrawal!) when I tell them that their thoughts about the future are no more significant than their farts. Both are simply body functions. When we understand that the state of our nervous system drives our thinking—the stories that we tell ourselves—we are more able to distract from the emotions that tag along with our catastrophic thinking. It’s essential to recognize that state drives story so that you can more easily observe your thoughts instead of believing them.
Some people are worried that if they happen to catch COVID-19 that the virus will increase their benzo withdrawal symptoms. That could happen. Many infections rev up our nervous system in benzo withdrawal. Again though, come back to the present moment. You don’t HAVE the virus right now, so don’t sully the present moment with fear about what may (but probably won’t) happen in the future. Some people worry that if they get sick, they may need an antibiotic, which we know through anecdotal evidence can sometimes make our benzo withdrawal symptoms worse. Again, come back to the present moment. You are safe right here, right now. (Your thoughts are not good predictors of the future, by the way.)
Safety is a HUGE part of our recovery and essential for anyone who wants to rewire their brain/nervous system for the better. That’s why I teach Dr. Stephen’s Porges’s Polyvagal Theory in my Mornings With Jenn support group. We can learn to reside in safety even in the chaos and confusion that is benzo withdrawal. We can reside in safety even in the chaos and confusion spreading globally about the COVID-19 virus. All is takes is a bit of knowledge about how our nervous systems work and a tiny bit of elbow grease—just some effort to choose to respond to triggers instead of allowing our initial fear-driven reaction to run and potentially ruin our lives.
If you do catch a respiratory infection, please seek medical care. Err on the side of caution. You don’t have to be under the care of a benzo-wise physician (they are few and far between) as you are educated about what meds we should avoid during withdrawal. You can reject any medical care that you feel will jeopardize your recovery, as long as doing so does not put your life at risk. (Read, if you need an antibiotic, you need an antibiotic.)
Speaking of respiratory infections, I came down with a bad flu (are any good?) last Friday. I am still bedbound and miserable. The good news is that the infection has not put me in a setback or brought back any of my benzo withdrawal symptoms. I am fine, except of course, for the flu! The bad news is that I have decided to practice good self-care, so I am not coaching new clients until after March 8th. If you are a regular or frequent coaching client, please email me, and I’ll do my best to work with you. My Mornings With Jenn Support group is still live on Wednesday and Friday mornings on Facebook, 9 AM Pacific. (It’s been a bit dicey trying to talk, but so far, it’s been doable.)
What I hope you take away from this blog post is that the COVID-19 virus, although at times a catastrophic illness for some, is usually a mild infection most of the time. The fear that the media is spreading is causing most people, even those not in benzo withdrawal, a great deal of stress. That stress can eventually unravel the neural network and make us stupid. With an impoverished neural network, we can’t access our highest and best thinking of our prefrontal region, the executive functioning area of the brain. So, let’s all take a calming breath, stay in the moment right here, right now, where we are safe, and do our best not to let our threat detection circuitry make us its bitch.
Any questions? I’m all ears.
Want to learn about your brain and nervous system? The four cornerstones of well-being? Join Mornings With Jenn. We’d love to have you. Morning WIth Jenn is a very positive group. We don’t focus on symptoms. We focus on solutions!
P.S. WASH YOUR HANDS!