Here's some thoughts about Polyvagal theory and managing lockdown.
I have been thinking about lockdown and how it seems some people just can’t get their heads around the benefit of staying at home. (stfah)
I want to preface this, after first writing about it and being reminded of my immense privilege in living with a roof over my head, food on my table and safe people to cohabit with. The way my social, financial and geographical advantage affect me is immeasurable and I can’t look away from that. People who are not in this position will be pushed into ways of dealing that they might not like, might not be in line with their values or truth. This is an acknowledgement of how privilege impacts hugely on the way we get to navigate this.
Let’s look at how this lockdown requirement might land with people. According to Polyvagal theory, where you mostly work from in your nervous system creates your response. Remember this response begins unconsciously. We don’t get to choose where our response originates.
People who are acting from their Ventral vagal system which is anchored in the most modern or frontal part of the brain, can take on new information, be creative, think of the collective, draw logical conclusions, be empathetic, respond to change effectively etc. This is a way of functioning that helps you live a connected life; a good way to be. It’s helpful for you and it’s helpful for me if you respond from here. To respond from here you have had to had pretty good parenting, minimal trauma and have done some inner work.
People who are acting from their sympathetic nervous system, which is in the mid-brain and not as modern as the ventral vagal system, are likely to be more jumpy, anxious, a little less able to think clearly, easily pushed into wanting to run, or fight. Right now, these people are getting overwhelmed easily and are not able to handle much more than what’s right in front of them.
People also might be acting from here that are usually acting from their ventral system because of all the stress they are under from all the unusual things they are having to navigate. Think of the parents trying to work from home with children they are not used to tending to without a break. Think of the people who love their job and contact with others who are bored out of their minds. Think of the people who are worried about loved ones who are struggling and they can’t get to. There’s a lot that is pushing us to react from this part of our systems. You are likely to naturally respond from here if you didn’t get a lot of kind containment as a kid (healthy boundaries, consistent nurturing, etc.) and you have experienced trauma.
People who are acting from the most ancient and “primitive” part of their brain, called the dorsal vagal complex, are more likely to be a bit numb. They will be more likely to ignore the information out there about the virus, be unconcerned and think people are overreacting and a bit pathetic. They will be the ones thinking they’ll be right, it’s just a trip to the beach/shops/visit my mates. This part of the brain/nervous system isn’t designed to make you think logically or think of others, it’s designed to make you freeze in the face of threat. It’s like playing possum; “If I just don’t react I will be safe.” would be its motto.
Lots of people live in “functional freeze.” They see people who are worried and flustered as weak. They think of themselves, about what will get them where they want to go. They tend to think simply; this works for me and don’t necessarily think of the impact on other people. They shut down response to emotions and worry, so that things like sickness and death are topics they won’t visit. They convince themselves they don’t care, or more accurately don’t have access to their caring. They will also be the ones who feel unable to do anything other than watch a screen and eat. This is not to judge or shame anyone, this is just describing what’s most likely from this way of functioning.
These people have had life experiences, mostly from very early on, where they were taught that feelings, especially fear or hurt were not treated kindly. They were taught that to be shut down was what kept them safe. These people were not consistently nurtured, and are likely to have suffered significant trauma. That is experiences that impact them negatively not just car crashes etc.
Many of us will be responding from this place (dorsal vagal complex or shut-down) because of overwhelm.
Modern western culture trains us to prefer shut-down. But now that we are in lockdown the dysfunctional aspects of shutdown are becoming more apparent.
When we look at the community reactions to lock-down and see people flouting these measures, these may be people who find it hard to connect to their own fear, let alone the fear of others. They cannot allow themselves or understand how to be worried constructively, face illness and death with anything more than bravado. They are not able to see how their actions impact on others because their capacity for connection is limited. This is not to say they are bad people but their behaviour does have an impact on us now. We are, as a community, requiring people to think of each other.
Your behaviour matters. If you become a source of transmission you put me and my beloveds at risk. Some of them are at high risk. I need you to help me.
If you are someone who recognises you are tipping out of your normal function, please find healthy ways to notice and navigate back into a more regulated way of behaving. If you are anxious and jumpy put some music on and dance yourself sweaty, brisk walk around the block, dig the garden, get out a skipping rope. Move your body to release a bit of the pent up zingy-ness.
If you are in shut down mode just know that’s a normal response to overwhelm. Do something gently soothing, facetime someone, even if it’s just to talk about the weather; connect! Do something that gives you a sense of achievement. Make something. Do something funny – watch something that makes you laugh and when you are able move your body.
This is not an exhaustive list. You know yourself well. “Wisdom is what works “as Dr Estés says. I am writing this to explain, to myself as much as anyone, what I am observing.
Find something that moves you out of the state of cut-off-ness and into connection. What you do matters. You matter. And please wash your hands and stfah.
edited to add the preface after a kind comment from Miriam about my social advantages in this situation.
I want to talk about human Threat response and covid19.
The other day, I listened in dismay to a supermarket worker talk about the hideous behaviour of some people in the shop. The day before, I was waiting in a patient and well distanced line at the pharmacy, when a white man came into the queue and pushed in and started swearing and generally being belligerent.
I felt scared. I felt sorrow for the workers and others who are doing the best they can in really difficult and scary conditions and did not deserve that treatment. And I felt aghast for my fellow pharmacy queuers who felt intimidated and upset.
And now I am feeling for the angry people. That's not some spiritual bypassy nonsense. That's after a lot of reflection on my distress and leaning into the principles of Somatic Experiencing and the Polyvagal theory.
I will attempt my simple understanding of the way it works... here goes...
Our nervous systems have developed to respond to a threat in several ways. These all happen unconsciously.
Firstly, we try to think/negotiate/create our way out of it (this is the ventral/front or "newest" part of our brain).
If that doesn't work, or we have not had good experience using this, we go to the next level (the sympathetic nervous system or more ancient part of our brain.) This part of us is ready to respond to the sabre-toothed tiger. It's the fight and flight part of the brain. If you think you can take the threat on, you will fight and if you think you can outrun it, you will flight (or run).
If that doesn't work, or again, you have lived through experiences that have taught you that you don't have a lot of skill with threat, or, in the moment you are overwhelmed, you use the most ancient part of your brain the dorsal/hind-brain at the back of your skull. This is where you freeze or go into shut down.
I hope you are still with me.
Back to the shouty man in the queue. People are scared. This virus thing is out of our lived experience. (I could go off on a tangent about the lost art of story and how if we had kept alive the stories of the Spanish flu we might have navigated this differently but, I digress.)
We have been raised to think we can be the masters of the planet. We have learned to take what we want, when we want it, in the way that suits us. We don't have experience of our own puny place in the real scheme of things except for bushfires and tsunami and earthquake and something in our psyche convinces us that was a one off and we move on with the relentless entitlement that seems endemic in our culture.
At the moment, we are faced with this unfamiliar threat. It’s a threat that we can't see, it's minute and yet powerful, that is taking people out despite their status, power or wealth; aka all the things we have been taught to believe, matter.
We are all having to do things we don't want to do, live a way we don't want to live. We are having to curtail, cut off, submit. We don't like it. It's a threat. And that threat makes us respond. Remember this is not conscious.
Some of us are to the threat responding from our ventral system. We are connecting, being creative and community minded, building new ways to stay safe and strong. This doesn't mean we are not scared or feel the loss. We just respond by learning, connecting and being thoughtful and creative. To respond like this we have had to have lived pretty safe, well supported lives, be well resourced, have done some inner work to resolve trauma etc.
Some of us are responding from the “sympathetic” part of our systems. We are wanting to run and we can't. In Aotearoa NZ right now, because lockdown for a month, this means just that, no hanging with whanau, sauntering and jaunts to the beach or the bach or the fishing trip.
We are reacting from the fight part of the sympathetic response. In many cases this is a well-worn path honed by finding relief in intimidation and aggression; if you roar loud enough most things will run away.
Sometimes the fight response is heightened as a result of our own trauma and learned behaviour. And, right now, many people who otherwise wouldn’t, are acting from this fight response through stress and complete overwhelm.
We reach this place of being driven anger in an attempt to get the threat out of our faces.
These are the people who are angry in the supermarket and in the pharmacy queue. They are also the usually mild mannered person who snapped at us, the mother with her kids on lockdown losing her cool, the father crying in the car before he comes inside.
Does it excuse anger and intimidation? No.
But knowing there are people out there who are likely to be on a short fuse is important.
How do we manage this? We are wise to pay acute attention to our own feelings, not deny or avoid. We can try to be self aware, self reflective. We can try to build safe connection that will allow us to talk things out. This will often help us move into the frontal part of our brain, bring it back on line.
We can run or do exercise to release some of the pent-up fight/flight response we are all feeling. We can shout into a pillow. We can rip up paper (not toilet paper coz that's gold apparently - an attempt at humour). We can dig the garden. Movement will help us mitigate that flight/fight response. All things we can feasibly do in lockdown.
We have a responsibility for taking care of ourselves. That means navigating things with care. Trying to pay attention to how we are feeling. Asking for help. Taking breaks. Talking to people. Being kind to ourselves. Noticing something that is growing, like a pot-plant, or changing, like clouds.
None of which is encouraged by modern western culture (as you will know if you have been following my work for any time at all!) #smashthepatriarchy.
There will be many people who are unable to do this moderating or mitigating. Who are angry and lashing out. If you are one of those people or stuck in quarantine with one of those people, please contact agencies listed below for support. You deserve to be safe.
As for the third response from the dorsal part of our brain? That's shut-down. That's when we can't think, or feel. When we curl up. And sweet human, we need you with your heart light on to make a way in the darkness. If you find yourself in shutdown, please rest. Please ask for help. Please be gentle and please return. Many people use alcohol and substances to maintain this state and it's going to be harder to isolate and continue with this, again if you can please get help.
Not everyone has the resources to cope during this time. Not everyone can just get through. Not everyone has the capacity.
So, dear one. When we tend to ourselves kindly and with understanding and generosity we are more likely to be able to navigate our way back to the ventral part of our brain, think cogently, understand, learn, be creative and connect with others.
When we drive ourselves beyond our capacity we are less able to hold that place of thought and conscious decision making. We respond to threat in ways we are not proud of. And some of us are doing the best we can and it's not enough for us to cope.
So, what am I trying to encourage you to do? If you have the resources; be kind to yourself. If you don't please ask for help.
I am the kind of person who has a face that looks like I am sour or mean or hard or displeased when I seldom am.
I am a person who often gets misinterpreted.
I am the kind of person who walks around noticing shapes and colours and thinking about the ways they might work in a painting.
I am a person who gets inspiration in inconvenient places and sometimes has to stop and tend to that.
I am a person who regrets the many creative acts she didn’t do for fear of failure.
I am the kind of person who spends energy just staying in a noisy space. A lot of energy.
I am a person who spends time translating what I am thinking into my approximation of non weirdness.
I am a person who can be nutting out a problem in my writing or my course creating, as I do groceries and be oblivious to other people walking by.
I am a person who may be seen as unfriendly because of that.
I’m a person who seldom follows threads of friendship , not because I don’t want them but because I am engaged in loving what’s right in front of me and needing refill, so that I am seldom available for anything else, as lovely as that might be.
I am also a person who believes that people don't really want to spend time with me and that shrinking away is safer and kinder.
I am a person others turn away from.
I am a person who loves big and likes people but has a tank for interacting that needs constant refills. (See translation comment above).
I am a person who is learning about themselves, has been oblivious to harm making and is learning another way, trying to undo and mend.
I am a person who is grieving.
I am a person who who knows what I experience is not what everyone else does and who gets confused about what to leave in and what to leave out sometimes.
I am a person who can cry at a colour or a bird song or kindness and a person who gets enraged at meanness. Particularly my own.
I am a person who values being understood.
,i was listening to this podcast about the world's smartest animals
it was funny and thought provoking.
One of the contestants, and eventual winners, was the sperm whale.
Sperm whale won on the basis of being thought to have a "we consciousness," which meant that they thought and felt as a unit. If one sperm whale was suffering they felt that suffering and responded collectively.
I started to think what it might be like to live in a community where we truly felt as a we.
How difficult it would be to experience your fellow human's distress and humiliation, as if it were your own?
Would it be so easy to hurt each other? To incarcerate children on the border? Leave them to suffer indignity and humiliation?
And what about the planet? Imagine if we could feel we-ness with the earth. With the air's pollution, the river's choking, the fire's burning,
If we felt the we-ness of this place, I imagine things would be very different.
I wonder if part of us remembers being inextricably linked with each other, with our surroundings. I wonder if that is either our default setting; something that we knew in the days when we began to hunt and had ritual to engage with gratitude for the spirit of the deer that we were about to kill.
I wonder if that part of us knew just how to treat the land and the water we depended on because we were in relation with it. We had a "We consciousness".
I wonder if that part of us was selected out as we became more aggressive with each other, more territorial? If we began to lose the we consciousness as a defense against feeling too much when we got greedy or murderous with our neighbours?
I wonder if we are living in a we-consciousness deficit?
If our systems are struggling to cope with the lack of connection and belonging we are experiencing?
If the world around us is showing the result of this lack of we?
Is that why so many of us are living in a state of constant fight or flight? Why anxiety is rampant?
I wonder if that is why children are coming into this world in neurodiverse ways? Is the presence of young ones so averse to the noise and busyness, the harshness of chemicals and pollutants a readjustment to our we-ness?
Are we so biologically far from what it looks like to live in connection with our life support system - the planet and each other - that our systems are sounding the alarm?
I wonder if we are beginning to experience the end of the I-ness?
It's been a while.
Instead, I find myself furiously posting on Facebook in an effort to call out the Emperor's new clothes. It feels like trying to shout into a hurricane.
But it's one of the ways shout anyway.
And part of my shouting out is in doing my own inner work.
In turning towards my own contribution to the harmmaking in the world and doing what i can, being responsible for my part, I become the change agent in my own life and in this way changing what i contribute to the world.
A big part of that is my commitment to shadow work.
I have been doing shadow work for about six years now.
Facing the Minotaur is the biggest body of work i have completed and something i am immensely proud of.
My immersion in shadow work leads me to see the world through the lense of shadow, which is particularly helpful at this time where so much unbelievable destruction and dissension is becoming common place.
In a world where we are now so desensitised by a barrage of bizzare and harmful things that we watch in stunned horror at the Amazonian rainforest and its people being destroyed, the Sonoran desert being irrevocably harmed for a wall that will do nothing, the English economy tank, the American economy be 'ordered" to invent new markets... and that's just this week.
So i look at shadow.
In shadow work we understand that we have a persona or a face we present to the world. This usually, in a effort for us to succeed in the world, to find love and belonging, persona is a mixture of "good" qualities like friendliness, hard working, family oriented, kind, ambitious and a few "bad" qualities greed, selfishness, meanness.
Usually the "good" outweigh the "bad". Usually we think we are pretty good people.
This persona is brittle. It's often easily cracked in defensiveness or stress and through these cracks, the other contents of our being come through. Often these contents are likely to be "bad"; rage, viciousness, destructiveness etc and they come pouring out through the cracks and cause havoc.
Often we blame the "other" for the presence of these "ugly" things - we find ways to quickly disown them, find some scapegoat or some one "less" than us to be the owner of these disgusting traits.
But the truth is we are like the ocean. The surface of the ocean is vast and we can think we see the ocean; we watch it change from glassy smooth to storm whipped waves and we can think we know it. But underneath is a huge and complex ecosystem that contains huge life force. We can't afford to dismiss this in knowing the ocean of self. The leviathans and predators that live there will "get us" if we ignore them and are unwilling to take them into account when we are out swimming around.
We have to understand the hidden and alive aspects of the self and we have to do it in a hurry.
Otherwise we run the risk of not taking responsibility for the things that we can change. We will get drawn into the seductive power of following someone who let's us off the hook by blaming "the other" for our woes. We will be righteous in defense of our own blamelessness and perfection and this, in its most vicious form, gives us permission to destroy.
We have to learn to abandon our defense of persona in favour of understanding our own hidden and harmful characteristics.
We can reclaim our own drive to destruction in order to stop it being expressed outside ourselves.
But we have to do it now.
Stop believing it's all "their" fault.
Start seeing our full selves; the sharklike self and the glorious dolphin - we need to SEA ourselves into responsible action.
I have been thinking about justice and fairness most of my life.
I think being raised in New Zealand implants the idea of fairness as part of your basic understanding of right. Well maybe it's having a working class coalminer Grandfather, but i understand the New Zealand psyche as having a deep connection to a sense of fairness. Our socialist style of governance has been taking a battering over the last decade or so but it's an underpinning principle of our country.
One day, when i was working as a nurse in the surgical ward with a wonderful woman i sat on her bed, at the end of the day with tears in my eyes. We had gotten to know each other. I used to steal her out of the ward in my lunch break and wheel her down to sit in the sun with me. We'd talk about life and laugh and sunbathe with our uniform and nightie respectively hiked up.
She had a painful and hideous condition that wasn't going to get better. And the day i sat on her bed was one where i had had to perform a very painful dressing change on her. She saw the tears and said "What's wrong?" I said "It's not fair. You are a good person and this (waving my hands at her failing body), is just unfair."
She got a steely look in her eye and jabbed her finger through the air in my direction. 'The sooner you realise, my girl, that life is not fair and that no one promised you it would be the happier you will be."
I have never forgotten that conversation but i find myself veering into the it's not fair lane more often than perhaps i would like. Ok i would like never to veer into that lane. Whining about things not being fair never gets me anywhere.
And yet i do.
There are situations, i have come to see and know intimately, that fairness will not be possible.
I am in one of those situations right now.
I feel a deep yawning chasm of fairness in me and i often stand and look into it with longing... wishing it could be filled.
But it won't be filled in the way i want.
The fairness will never come.
I can mourn that and i can complain about that. i can get angry about the loss and the injustice. i can try to pretend it doesn't matter to me and it's all good (actually i can't do that very well because it feels like such complete bullshit to be so avoidant. it does matter. No question)
But i cannot get the fairness from the place i am longing for it to come from.
So i prayed over it and what i got this morning from prayer was
"Justice is mine to create."
I get to supply the justice i need. i get to supply the fairness for myself. i get to tend to the things that do and don't.
I get to make it fair with my own tools, my own understandings, my own understandings, my own values, my own capacity, my own desires.
I don't have to outsource justice.
I get to provide it.
Instead of being hungry looking in the window at the food i wish i could have and will never be invited to share, i can walk away and create my own feast. I will do this with good grace and in ways that really meet me where i need to be met.
I will create my own justice and it will nourish me deeply.
Tell me what justice you need to create. Let me make a blessing for you - just leave a comment below and i will make a blessing to meet you in your justice needs.
When we are hurt our first reaction is to draw away.
This is the kind of wisdom that has kept us here on the planet (for better or worse). It makes evolutionary sense to know when we must learn that something is dangerous or potentially so.
When we feel pain we get a chance to withdraw and make a better decision. We get to choose another action, another path.
We may learn the lesson for ourselves, and pass it on to those we love.
"Don't touch the flame you will get burned." "That is sharp, be careful". "Those are poisonous. Don't eat them"
There are times though, when our instincts either don't serve us or we over-ride them - both causing more harm than we need to endure..
There are versions of hurt; a broken heart for example, where our instincts tell us to run. We want to run from the pain, distract ourselves, avoid the suffering. This means that our hurt is buried out of sight and we are blinded to the root cause or to any potential we have to learn from it.
Couple that with situations of psychological harm, emotional harm, where our instincts tell us to run away and our hurt is so overwhelming that we get frozen. We stay when we should run. Or we avoid looking at what is really happening because the cost of discovering what is really happening is too great.
When our patterning, our cultural mores, our understanding of what is ok, colludes with harm making - a good woman is compliant and makes the peace is a good example, we are bound to the harm making in ways that set us up, if not for diminishment then for deep wounding.
It takes a step out of both our cultural paradigms and our instinct to avoid hurt to come face to face with the harm making we are experiencing.
If you have a broken heart there may be some things that will help you tend to the harm without making you feel like you have been smashed by it.
"When i look into my heart what do i believe?"
"Whose voice does that remind me of?"
"Where can i turn for insight and wisdom on this ?"
"How can i be kinder to myself in order to allow the shy truth to reveal itself?"
When you are hurt the last thing you need is to hurt more with an unkind internal voice, all you are doing is colluding with the harm maker.
Find a way to speak to yourself kindly, take responsibility for your part in things and take action to mend.
Turning towards your pain is a way of ensuring the future will be different. Turning away will make the same lessons more insistent.
If you are interested in doing work that will help you turn towards yourself in suffering you might like Facing the Minotaur. Please go here to find out more about it.
" As the shadow is drawn up into consciousness, it becomes softer, more pliable, more gentle." Robert A. Johnson. Owning Your Own Shadow. Understanding the dark side of the psyche. pg 41.
This quote fills me with hope.
When i first began my enquiry into the world of shadow i was shitting myself and in truth, hope-less.
I knew that i was a hideous person - a martyr, a weakling, a liar, avoidant and o so much more. I sure as hell didn't want to engage with any of that shit more than i had to.
Give me the shiny and the sweet any day.
But i knew, at the bottom of my sinking heart, that i had to look at those things in order to resolve the struggle i was constantly finding myself in - the seemingly unending ways my arseholery would turn up and leap into the spotlight.
I knew it was underneath my exhaustion. I knew it was underneath my imposter syndrome, my self sabotage, my volatile relationships. I knew that underneath all that was growing heavier by the day, were my failings and faults. Holding them down was becoming more and more arduous and I felt that if i kept dragging them around as i tried to walk in the world i would fall. Maybe for good.
I'm telling you this because i want to tell you i understand how shadow work can feel like the last bloody thing you want to do. When trying to hold onto the light is like a lifeline into the world you want to have, into the space where you are able to breathe, not drowning in the hard stuff.
It's my experience though that clinging onto the light, it gets more and more brittle. It's like the pressure of the unexpressed shadow robs the strength out of the experience of the light. It's like osteoporosis of the soul. The strength of your light is leached by unexpressed shadow and it is more and more easily fractured.
That's why this quote gave me so much hope.
If by approaching shadow "it becomes softer, more pliable, more gentle", then perhaps i too will become softer, more pliable, more gentle?
Although i didn't believe it, i began the work which has become Facing The Minotaur. This work, the gleanings of a 5 year process of enquiry, intuition, experimentation, learning and practice, has proven the veracity of this quote.
What once scared me shitless is now the ground for my recovery, my strength and my growth.
It is not a quick fix and is a dedication to wholeness that will call on your courage and commitment and it has changed my life. I am truly honoured to share it with you and if you have any questions or thoughts about shadow or about Facing the Minotaur i would love to connect with you about it.
With love and gratitude
Chris Zydel is a gift to the entire planet. She is the Grand High Priestess of Creative Juices Arts, an expressive arts maestra, an astrology wizard, a fountain of love, wisdom and bawdiness and one of my favourite people. Chris has been a soul sister since i connected with her online and then in person... it was like a homecoming meeting with her.
In these times of darkness she is not the flimsy "just turn to the light" kind of heroine but a gutsy truth-teller who is committed to wholeness, realness and the truth of what love and being human is all about.
How better then to help me usher in my new work Facing the Minotaur but to chat with Chris in her home in San Francisco while i sat in my bed in Whangarei?
Join us for this loving chat about shadow <3
jane- creativity activist, synchonicity celebrator, conduit for love.