“I have been training for this all my life!” These are the words I heard recently from one of my clients and I can’t get them out of my head. She was referring to her ability to galvanise her family to circle the wagons and survive this state of emergency that Covid-19 has supplied. Like so many of us she was in the full throws of her sympathetic nervous system fight/flight stress response - a precious gift from evolution to ensure we survive. What might separate her now is the fact that she really had been training night and day her whole life for an emergency that would not just affect her but the world. The world would now be in the same neurophysiological state of emergency as she had always been in. No uncertainty now for her, the world is now what her nervous system had always told her scary, stressful and untrustworthy. In a weird way, COVID-19 is comfortable for her nervous system because it’s not uncertain.
But it’s not just this one client of mine that feels this way. Many of us, me too included, have had some degree of this feeling. But like all adaptive survival strategies they have an ideal time and place, a sweet spot where they do their job at keeping us alive. After a certain point they actually do more harm than good and they put the body rest, digest & repair functions on hold. Now we have an outer world reflection of the frazzled 24/7 world many of us have been inhabiting our whole lives. Stress initially worn as a badge of honour proving our value in a world dominated by productivity soon becomes our Achilles heel as it tumbles into the chronic end of the scale.
So why do we find it so hard even before Covid-19 to navigate our relationship with stress? Like a toxic relationship we have become both physically and mentally enmeshed. The social isolation that is now so in the forefront has been a silent pathogen for decades. Many blame the digital revolution with a smart phone in every one’s hands and the very words ‘social’ media says it all. But I have come to see these as the ‘cars’ in which loneliness travels with the roads themselves being internal. Roads enable cars to travel and the wiring of our central nervous system (CNS) are the roads for our stress to travel. With the motor way of your CNS being your Vagus Nerve, the primary way that the brain and body communicate. ”.
Fight/flight/shutdown all are focused on one thing and one thing only – survival of the organism. Not the wider family, tribe, nation, continent or world, just me, me, me! Doesn’t this individualistic stance sound familiar? The very version of society we have been brought up in has idolised the cult of separation. People are units of consumption, there is a limited amount of money, jobs or even life partners out there we are told and we need to compete to win them. And once you win them the feedback loop kicks in again and you consume. Competition in its self isn’t bad, like everything it’s the ways we use it that can make it toxic. When it’s used to drive fear from mild fear of missing out to downright terror of most of the news stories that hit the headlines each day they all do one thing – trigger us.
We could say humanity as a whole is a traumatised species. Over the centuries we have survived countless wars, famines & disasters, which actually makes you and me the marvellous adaptive strong descendants – winners in the game of life. But to win at something we have to really focus and give it our all, to forego something else. In the game of survival this is often at the determent of our relationships & our ability to socially engage with others.
But the good news is nothing in life is static & the only constant is change. Like a scales we can tip back to balance and have a healthy relationship with the stress and the challenges we face. Armed with the latest scientific understanding of this hierarchical nature of our nervous system we can strengthen our ability to respond rather than react and build our resilience. Just as my client had been in training all her life it was like only training on leg’s muscles and then trying to run a marathon. The one really toned leg may get you out of the starter blocks but it won’t get you the distance. You need the ability to balance from one leg to another to carry you along.
Stephen Porges seminal work on the vagus nerve gives us a tangible physical way to understand this process. Your brain’s primary purpose is to keep your body as a whole alive. And as a social species, most of our conscious thoughts & feelings are about our relationship to others to ensure we remain part of the social group. This is reflected in a uniquely human adaptation of our nervous system – the ventral branch of the vagus nerve. The ventral branch has the ability to put a brake on the heart which has a calming effect, triggering the nervous system as a whole that it’s safe. Safety is the state that the body and brain seek to continuously balance back to every minute or every day so long as you are alive. Once you feel safe most of the time your nervous system can crack on with its real job to keep you healthy. The unique part of this balancing act is how the ventral vagal brake is activated.
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve, it’s the longest, most complex, and runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen. The fact that it runs through the face and neck means it is connected to the muscles of these areas too. These are collectively known as the social engagement system (SES) because of their role involving facial expression, speech, and listening. Once the SES detects a cue of safety which can range from a simple smile on the face of the lady at the post office to hearing the voice of your friend on the phone while you catch up, this flips your vagal brake on. Physiologically your heart rate slows down triggering the nervous system, brain, and body that it’s safe to get on with life by breaking down your food into energy, repairing wear & tear, and even growing new brain cells. While in the brain specifically, it prompts a dialing down of the stress and fear responses allowing you access to your conscious thinking networks that can respond rather than react.
So when our social world supports us we feel safe and can trust that life will support us on our way. We are physically healthier, learning is easier as is creativity – life is just better. We are resilient and can deal with what life throws at us pretty much most of the time.
We are all beginning to see the light again at the end of the metaphorical Covid-19 tunnel with the opening up of our beautiful county to more social interaction. Things will not be easy for many as the impact of effects on the economy emerges but there is hope in the air once again. We are marvelously resilient species who have a uniquely successful social advantage allowing us to adapt to all sorts of normal.
And if there is one thing we can all do now?
Stay away from mood hoovers! We all have them, that friend or work colleague who is a bit doom and gloom. Research shows emotions are contagious and if all you are catching is negative emotions than all you will get is a triggered stress response. Take back your control!”
If this sparked an interest & you would like to find out a bit more about how you can build your resilience and perform at your best, then…I'd love to hear from you!
Give Frances a call on 085 862 3009