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.