In 2005, I was physically assaulted while riding my bicycle to work. Both police officers on the scene told me to ride my bike to work the next day or I never would. They assured me it was very unlikely I would experience another random assault. By successfully riding my bike down that pathway again, I would realize it is safe and overcome the fear.
My psychologist told me that after a Big T Trauma like assault, the key to healing is to protect the brain from fear and give it time to recover. She said if I was too scared to walk to the store on the corner, I should ask someone to go for me. Certainly I should not ride my bike to work. Forcing that would drive the fear underground and lead to longer term anxiety. By experiencing safety from fear, my brain would recover. My natural resilience and strength would come back and I would be able to move back into the world without fear.
We are participating in a huge social experiment around fear and threat with the global pandemic. No matter how directly we are affected by Covid-19, we are all changed in important ways.
People have strong opinions on whether we are harming or hurting children through online teaching. Some feel we are depriving them of the opportunity to engage socially with peers. Others are noting how much more relaxed their children are without having to face bullying or just the everyday stresses of trying to fit in on the school bus and in class. I think we can all admit that many social interactions are tough. Children are not necessarily kind to each other and form alliances to gang up on kids who are perceived to be different or weak.
How many of you are teleworking and what is your experience with that? For many adults, it is a relief to not have to negotiate the adult snake pit of office politics. We are physically more isolated but in some ways that is very good for our nervous system. We’re not rushing out the door to fight traffic or be squeezed into public transit. Social obligations are less and we have more time. The pressure has eased in some important ways.
This is in contrast to people who have danger in their home. We are seeing increased domestic violence, mental health issues and a rise in drinking and other drug use. Some people who managed living together by rarely spending time together are getting divorced if they have that option. Financial pressure, fear and grief make it harder to stay self-regulated and some take out their frustration on “weaker” members in the family. For some children, school is a much safer environment than home.
Many people long for the day when they can travel once again to see family and loved ones. Others are secretly relieved that lock-downs prevent or reduce social and family obligations. Some people are bored at home. Others are catching up on their sleep and spending time with each other. We have a range of experiences and we all experience positive and negative effects.
In some ways, we are widening our window of tolerance by staying home and reducing our exposure to threat. Our nervous system has a chance to rest and become stronger. In other ways, we may be narrowing our window of tolerance because we are no longer used to the rough and tumble abrasions of daily life. We may become more sensitive and find it harder to cope. Added to the social and emotional threats we handled before, we now have an immediate physical threat. Other people can give us a disease that can kill us.
What is your experience with this? What do you plan to do when it is safer to interact with others again? Do you experience joy and anticipation? Dread and fear? A combination? Do you feel this time of Covid-19 has been helpful in increasing your strength and resilience?
Stephen Porges speaks about safety being both an absence of threat and a feeling of connection. In this global social experiment, we are experiencing a reduction of some types of threat, a sharp increase in other types of threat, and great difficulty in feeling connected with others. It is a time when increasing safety in our nervous system is a priority. Kindness and compassion for ourselves and others always helps.