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  • Writer's pictureTiffany McCabe

Emotional regulation, social connections and fear response

I want to introduce you to the polyvagal theory, by Stephen Porges. Understanding the polyvagal theory in the climate of COVID-19 is particularly useful, as it allows for a deeper understanding of our nervous system, how we can stay calm, and connect to others in a more meaningful and safe way. The first thing our body does is assess if it is safe for us to connect - our automatic nervous system - sends off messages, but also searchers for safety or danger cues. With our automatic nervous system, there is the drive to connect and the drive for survival; these sometimes work together, but in other times, work against each other. The autonomic nervous system thrives off of co-regulation, meaning we are searching for evidence from others that will either allow new possibilities for connections, or reinforce survival patterns - leading to disconnection. What this looks like in real life; if we are with friends and we are calm, we are inviting our friend’s nervous system to be calm, which allows for a better connection. However, if we are with friends and feeling angry, we are sending messages to our friends’ nervous system that it is not safe to connect, and our friends will automatically disconnect from us.

There are three parts of our autonomic hierarchy. You can think of this as a ladder, the bottom of the ladder being dorsal vagal, the middle of the ladder being sympathetic and the top of the ladder being ventral vagal. When we are in ventral vagal, we are; co-regulated, connected to ourself, our World and to “spirit”, we can reach out for support or reach out to offer support, and we know where to find resources or already have resources. When we go to the sympathetic response, we go into fight or flight. We start to feel alarmed, out of sync with others, we will misread others’ cues as dangerous and we only listen for cues of danger. When in dorsal vagal we are in complete shutdown, this looks like; withdrawing from others, becoming foggy or numb, not much awareness, and feeling completely disconnected from self, others, our World and spirit. It is completely normal to shift into and out of all three of these states; however, when we get stuck in fight or flight or withdrawal, is when we need some support to start feeling safe and connected once again.

Here are some tips we can use as caregivers, friends, and professionals!

• Talk softly, using a variety of tones and pauses, moving to a quieter environment (loud background noises will trigger physiological states and defensive behaviours)

• Making eye contact- this will help with social engagement, moving out of a hypervigilant state

• Familiarity and predictability (very important, especially right now! Looking forward to…)

• Use of cold drink, sucking on hard candy, forward fold- keep your organs running so your nervous system doesn’t go into fight/flight

• Breath work (try exhaling longer than your inhales)

• Go outside in Nature!

• Move your face!!! While wearing a mask it is easy to keep your face neutral, however, if we are smiling, the muscles in our face will shift, this will create a more socially engaged environment.

• Touch- important for safety and difficult during COVID. However, here are some ideas: use of hand cream, a soft piece of material, self hug, different textures.

• Maintain social relationships- even if you can’t see friends and family. Write cards, facetime, call, etc.… aim for once a day

• The role of empathy; perspective, no judgement, recognizing emotion in other people and communicating understanding

• Move your body, walk, do art work, drum, shake out arms and legs

(Based on information from Stephen Porges and Deb Dana)



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