by Liz Covey, LMHC
I saw a friend recently that I haven’t seen in months, this being COVID times. She has started a new job — a move she’d wanted for a long time. I asked what it was like to “onboard” during this bizarre time in our history — when meeting all of her co-workers and learning all the ins and outs of a new workplace takes place 100 percent online. “It’s actually great” she said, adding, “especially since I made a friend.”
“That’s wonderful!” I replied. Then, without a thought to how this might sound — a sure sign I’m spending more time in my head lately than in social gatherings — I asked her: “How do you really know you are friends, with everything being so different now? I mean, you can’t go to lunch or chat on your way to the meeting or get a drink after work … ”
I was genuinely curious about how one could make a friend in this strange time. But to question her about it felt like criticism when it came out of my mouth. Her look confirmed that notion. She cocked her head, stunned.
“I guess I’m not sure, now that you put it that way,” she said, and I realized that I had unwittingly taken away the best thing that had happened to her in months. In these particularly excruciating months.
Nice going, I thought to myself. This was followed by a couple of unprintable thoughts that ran through my head, the trappings of a classic guilt trip. And I can only imagine what ran through my friend’s mind after this unfortunate exchange.
Has the coronavirus broken me? I wondered. Will I be able to socialize like a normal person on the other side of this thing?
These days, hypervigilance, awkwardness, and pettiness in the midst of normal social routines is standard. And it’s exhausting.
My brain begins to flood with all the trips to the grocery store, to Seward Park, or to the post office, reminding me how annoyed I’ve been at those who seem not to be following the state health guidelines. Or how unexpectedly snide others have been with me from time to time. Then I reflect on how an encounter with a passerby in the neighborhood, a thing that used to be met with warm greetings, is now viewed as a threat of an oncoming vector of disease, bringing with it a considerable amount of stress: Should I cross the street? Should they? Why aren’t they moving to cross the street? And so forth.
(A note to the reader: There is a parallel but not exactly similar situation of strife in the air today with the anti-racism protests and work that has emerged and gained ground following the death of George Floyd. There are many positive aspects to that kind of stress — the kind that John Lewis called “good trouble” — the kind that prompts social change to occur on a grand scale. Therefore, I don’t want to risk conflating those things with the stress of the coronavirus, which is largely of another nature. Suffice it to say, this piece primarily covers the COVID-19 crisis.)
When I get in the frame of mind of my better self and bring the healthiest of my resources to bear, I have a lot of empathy for all of us these days. The amount of new information that we must now process doing the tasks of everyday life is truly overwhelming, regardless of our exact circumstances.
We are all in this tangle of “how’s this supposed to work now?” It’s not what we are accustomed to, ours being a species that has evolved ever so intricately, with tens of thousands of years of social codes and norms under our belts. The handshake and the hug didn’t come out of nowhere. Our customs have been purposefully shaped to overcome social distance. They are the gestures that prepare us for closeness and for getting along, despite our many differences.
Today, all of this is being refashioned in just a few short months owing to two afflictions: one that is biological and the other a product of poor governance. And boy do those things have grave consequences, from death and disorder to the genuine strife of having to reconsider every single one of life’s habits. Should I cross the street? Should they? … This new soundtrack plays all day, every day. And like any other earworm, it becomes grating over time, leading us in our worst moments to take it out on each other.
There’s an axiom that many of us use in my profession these days: and it’s that we are “wired for connection.” This phrase points to how we humans are neurologically built to relate and connect — both in our personal psychologies and bodies, as well as in our relationships, our work, and our communities. Connection happens within: through intuition, emotions, inner calm, and a sense of meaning. And connection also happens without: to one another, and to the wider world. We receive signals from both avenues subjectively and internally, through our muscle tension, heart rate, emotions, thoughts, and “gut” truths. To the disappointment of many, we aren’t as much rational and logical beings as we are feelings-based creatures — and by a wide margin.
Neuroscientist Stephen Porges has developed a way of understanding this from the inside out, through the Polyvagal Theory, a framework for understanding the exact circuitry at work in the inner world as it meets the outer one. Porges identified a powerhouse in the nervous system, the vagus nerve, and his theory provides the blueprint, if you will, for how these inner signals work — a thing he calls our Social Engagement System (SES).
Here’s roughly how it works: the vagus is a cranial nerve that runs through the core of our bodies along the whole of our spine, conducting impulses to every major organ. It regulates much of our physical function, including the heart rate, and therefore plays an enormous role in the human parasympathetic nervous system, meaning in our wiring related to handling stress. You could say that the SES (via the vagus nerve) is the informational highway that connects the brain to the body and gives ample evidence that our thoughts and emotions are embodied — which literally means in the body.
The Polyvagal Theory advanced our understanding of how our environment affects our inner world and how the reverse is also true. It illuminates how much our bodies are chiefly governed by social engagement and stress levels. This can help explain why your doctor now asks about your life and specific stressors and not just about your aches and pains.
So what happens to our SES now that we are in a sustained period of upending our means of establishing safety and connection? And when our reliable means of understanding the world and our role in it are thrown out the window? What are we to do in that case?
We are to do what humans do best: understand and then adapt.
To act in accordance with health officials today is to be not only physically healthy but also psychologically so. There are times when we must act in order to help the greater good, putting our own comforts aside. But this requires some understanding: first, that we educate ourselves about the disease (COVID-19) and its risks — and the recommendations made by health and medical professionals. And second, that we understand that in our divided country — where, for example, some people follow very different lines of logic than those recommended by the CDC — we would do well to be prepared for feelings of discord. But we can also recall that difference can be born without having to rise to the level of conflict. There are times to stand up and share our convictions, but there are also times to simply co-exist. This highly stressful time is distinctly the latter.
The other thing we can do is adapt. The most psychologically healthy thing to do in this moment is de-politicize this disease and follow health guidelines as they are put forth by leaders in the medical community. But in addition, we have to adapt to the effects of working against our SES — our inner wiring that informs us most directly about our safety and signals our bodies and minds through social behavior. In essence, this means that we have to get used to feeling like things are “wrong” or unnatural (such as avoiding others on a neighborhood walk). We have overcome much harder things as a species, and try as I might, I can’t seem to entirely sidestep the simple truths of folk wisdom at this point in the discussion. So here goes: this too shall pass. (We just don’t know when.)
In the meantime, take a page from the Polyvagal Theory, and ask yourself how you can live in the most connected way — both within yourself and with others — through this hard time. Maybe it requires more time on the yoga mat. Or more candid heart-to-heart talks instead of lighter fare when catching up with your closest people. Or reaching out for help. Instead of letting fear alone write the narrative of this time, let’s recall that connection is its antidote. In any and all forms.
So take good care of yourself. And aim to keep an open heart to others as they do the same, whether or not it looks like your way. We’re in this mess together, swimming upstream against the evolutionary tide, each doing our best to stay afloat for the long journey ahead.
Liz Covey is a South Seattle-based Psychotherapist and Parent Coach. Liz is a regular contributor to the Emerald’s “Ask a Therapist” column.
Featured Image by Ravikumar Shetty (under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license).