Are we really OK?

Caroline Ellis, our resident Somatic Therapist in Canberra, has written about the effect of these unsettling times on our nervous systems and asks questions about the impact this has on both the collective, as well as the individual.

The world is in the middle of unprecedented response to a pandemic virus, and as a result we are seeing significant changes in our communities as we come together to protect ourselves.

As a Somatic, or body based practitioner, I have been reflecting through this time about all our nervous systems and how they are responding to the ongoing and ever changing world around us.

Stephen Porges discusses our nervous systems response to threat beautifully in his Polyvagal Theory, where he discusses the fluid movement of our nervous system through stress and our bodies response to these changes and its return to optimal health, or an experience of safety or calm.

Polyvagal Theory Chart adapted by Ruby Jo Walker, explaining in visual form what happens to us when our stress builds to intolerable levels as it does in trauma.

In his theory, as we experience threat we move from our state of calm, into our fight/flight response, if we continue to feel stress or threat, we can move into a freeze response. It is after the freeze response, where if we continue to feel threatened, and our nervous system continues to be very elevated, we can find ourselves in a state of ‘Flop’.

What does this mean now, when it’s not a tiger coming for us, but a virus in our community?

Our body will still perceive this as a threat. The ongoing news reporting of 24-hour news, means the threat is constantly updated, remaining ever present. The topsy turvy world we find ourselves in, where our children are home schooled and we work in a home office, avoiding going outside, serves as a reminder that the world outside our home may not be safe.

Our body, our nervous system, is primed to protect us.  

We may find ourselves with elevated arousal levels, a fast beating heart, rapid, shallow breathing, a feeling of nervousness or feeling fidgety, stressed, anxious or finding it difficult to sit still. This is our body preparing us for ‘flight’. We might find ourselves panic buying groceries, or unable to concentrate on one task, moving between tasks rapidly whilst not appearing to get things done.

If we are moving into a ‘fight’ response, we would feel all those same bodily responses, but feel a sense of anger, frustration. We may find ourselves more easily irritated with those around us, our colleagues, technology, our children.

Or we may find ourselves ‘zoned out’ staring into the computer screen unable to engage, with time passing and nothing being achieved. We may find ourselves almost wide eyed with a feeling of overwhelm or hopelessness. We may also feel disconnected from what is happening and feel ‘really very fine’ whilst we watch everyone around us looking very stressed. This can be the feeling of ‘freeze’.

The final of the responses, ‘flop’, can feel like we are very tired, unable to move, possibly even far more sleepy or emotionally down than we were just a few months ago. Interestingly our nervous systems are still very elevated, but has gone into a protection mode, much like the mouse playing dead for the cat in a game of ‘cat and mouse’.

It is important to remember that none of these responses are wrong, they are the ways that we are attempting to protect ourselves, and we will always attempt to return to a state of calm, or optimal health.  When we are in this system, we feel connected to each other, grounded, our memory is strong and we are able to concentrate. We are more compassionate and we stay curious about what is happening around us.

Then what do we do? How do we support ourselves over the coming months to return to this calm state?

Firstly, I believe we need to be gentle on ourselves, and give ourselves the understanding that we may move between these states, and that this is very healthy. Sometimes by simply acknowledging where we are, we remove the feeling of confusion, personal judgement or shame. It is in understanding our various states that we may develop an ability to change the way that we experience them, and ultimately how we experience the world around us.

By limiting our exposure to the news or social media, we can gain more control over how we are exposed to this threat in our community.

Returning to activities that have worked in the past to help us feel calm, exercise and movement are well recognised to work for many, but each of us has our own strategies, and if we don’t it might be a good time to reach out for support to workshop or reflect on what might work for each of us and our nervous system.

On a larger scale, it will be interesting to continue to reflect on the impact that these individual responses will have on us collectively:

What would happen if we are able to discuss with our supervisor our experiences in terms of a threat response by our nervous system, could we also develop an understanding if there is a downward shift in productivity?

Can we have more compassion for the person panic buying pasta?

How can we begin to engage the whole community in strategies to assist in lowering stress responses?

Caroline Ellis

Mental Health Social Worker

Australian Childhood Trauma Group