Lu Hanessian, MSc
These times are for collective vigilance, a shift toward survival as well as a return to our biological need for connection, trust and safety. It’s a paradox of care. In our trauma and grief, we are building and preserving social scaffolding to attend to our needs while tending to the needs of others.
We face a biological paradox: the very comfort we seek is what we must avoid. For now.
Social distancing is a misnomer. Physical distancing is what we are doing because we hold sacred our shared humanity. We keep our distance because we are interconnected. Safe apart in solidarity.
Temporary lockdown need not lead to emotional and physiological shutdown. Staying connected, present, and anchored widens our adaptive capacity as we manage our anticipatory dread. We learn to balance both our fragility and fierceness. To make sense of who we are as we redefine the imperative of human belonging.
In my years of studying and teaching of the science of stress and trauma, interpersonal neurobiology, connection and resilience, I have come to understand self-care as relational care.
We listen to the moment.
We listen to each other.
We listen to what we need.
As we do, we try to find creative ways to meet our essential need for being in touch without touching, to offer each other a parcel of hope in the face of our collective fears. We can still show up even while staying home. It requires intention and presence to support each other without proximity. The deep work of cultivating personal resilience will be foundational to building stronger scaffolding for community and global resilience.
I have distilled the following ten scientific insights and written them to help inform, calm, and motivate you so that you can stay present and practice grounding in a time of unprecedented chaos, uncertainty and unpredictability:
- Our brains are primed to notice and remember visuals. Pictures of empty shelves are triggering our collective terror. People are judging others as selfish. That’s what terror can do to the brain — make us lose rational thinking and take action that is impulsive and illogical. If one person buys the last ten bottles of soap, how will the people without soap practice self-care to protect others? The terrified brain does not make this calculation. We can be informed, not inflamed. Inclusive, not impulsive.
- Our brains house mirror neurons. You yawn, I yawn. You laugh, I laugh. You feel anxious, I do too. Fear and anxiety spread exponentially across time zones and through our digital landscape. What can we individually practice that can support and encourage those around us? What can we share and post online that might do the same?
- Our nervous systems have no way to discern between the danger of a grizzly bear standing ten feet away or the danger of a global pandemic. The way our brain’s pre-frontal cortex, heart rate, blood pressure, pupils, respiratory system react to perceived and real danger is to prepare us for survival through stages.
- Our normal stress response is one of alertness. Stage 1 of sympathetic activity: Our breathing and heart rate quickens a lit. Blood pressure rises slightly. Pupils widen. We might sweat more. Digestion decreases temporarily. We still have access to our thinking brain, the mid pre-frontal cortex behind our forehead. This can happen when we are trying to get to a meeting on time and are stuck in traffic. Or when we’re working to meeting a deadline. Or when a stressor activates our anxiety.
- With hyperarousal comes our fight or flight response. When our stress response does not (have the opportunity to) return to calm and an inner sense of safety, clarity of thought and good feelings of trust and connectedness, that sympathetic nervous system stress response automatically (autonomically) slides into the next stage of fight/flight.
- We escalate into conflict or slide into avoidance. We can become entangled in a conflict with someone, wanting to be right (heard). We can leave the conversation, feeling slighted (unheard) or avoidant of further conflict. These universal reactions happen online every minute of the day, too. Digital polarization is a prolonged self-reinforcing stress response without resolution. What happens to us in these states?
- In flight/flight mode, we are actively reacting to perceived threat. We are breathing faster, heart rate quickens and is more deliberate, blood pressure rises, digestion halts, emotions of rage, fear, anxiety accompany the body’s reactions, and the brain’s thinking capacity is less accessible now.
- When fight or flight don’t help us resolve our stress reaction, we can collapse. In this state of freeze, it is impossible to access the front of our brain where we think, empathize, self-regulate, and soothe our fears, let alone connect with others. When the brain/body’s previous attempt to hit the brakes don’t work to restore physiological calm and clear thinking, we slide into a more distressed state of sympathetic reactivity that corresponds to extreme overload and a sense of threat combined with a need to escape. This creates hyperventilation, a fast heart rate, high blood pressure, and can produce terror and dissociation and bodily dysfunction.
- These activated stress states aren’t sustainable. We can’t keep escalating without also losing our capacity to think, feel and act with presence, intention and reason. Without intervention, these stress states can alter our cognitive capacity, distort our perceptions, drain our energy, and negatively impact our immune systems. Without interruption, these states can compromise us and others in our ability to adaptively respond in times of adversity. What’s more, when our breathing and heart rate quicken in fear, we might become worried that we are becoming symptomatic when we may be experiencing symptoms of stress.
- We can interrupt our own reactivity patterns and change our states with awareness, presence and compassion, so that we can reduce our stress and cultivate a sense of inner calm in the face of chaos, building resilience through practice.
Research tells us that there are promotive factors we must practice to boost our own resilience. These include:
Self-Care: This means actively self-calming/self-regulating upward through the body to the brain through breath, movement, walking outdoors, being in nature, tuning into our senses…
Adaptive Skills: … and self-regulating downward from the mind to the body’s organs and systems, by cognitively reframing fear and stressful thoughts, keeping perspective, choosing more generative frameworks for grounding ourselves in safe and stable ways and with those who we concrete emotional and physical safety and stability.
Supportive Social Networks: While social media offers a sliver of what a social network can look like by linking people globally, it also lacks the meaning, depth of connection and need for comfort and belonging we all need to feel safe and centered. In this destabilizing time of isolation, we can co-create small online cohorts of social connection, virtual structures to anchor ourselves. Who are your circle of friends, colleagues, loved ones, and mentors? Intentionally creating virtual tribes is one way to manage information (while discerning disinformation), emotional engagement, and mitigate the stress of our sudden deficit of touch. This offers us all an opportunity to make digital community more meaningful and share necessary updates without the distress of a 24/7 news cycle. Trusted relationships provide a buffer in the face of adversity, a holding place for our healing and hope.
We are vulnerable beings. In uncontrollable situations, fear fills in the blanks. We are wired for threat and fear just as we are wired for love and connection.
It’s natural to turn to social media for distraction and community when we are feeling frightened and our brain’s negativity bias is working overtime. But, as we become increasingly flooded with fear from outside forces, we must pay close attention to our inner resources. We can’t afford to slide into helplessness and passivity, dissociated and disconnected from our hope, our power and our needs. We can’t afford it for ourselves, for our families, for our colleagues, for society and the world. With so much at stake, we must each stay mindful.
We can (re)discover and attend to what we each need to thrive in a volatile world of uncertainty and risk. With broken, heavy hearts, we can and will navigate this uncharted landscape with collective resilience. In mapping our way, we can lay groundwork for healing to collectively and creatively change how we live, connect, work, and lead, so that we muster the courage and determination to usher in sustainable generative change for a new era.
Lu Hanessian, MSc, is a stress and trauma resilience researcher and educator, author, award-winning science journalist, consultant, former NBC network television anchor and Discovery Health Channel host. She is the founder of “Raising the Future Now” and host of an upcoming podcast. www.luhanessian.com