I have been hearing certain words quite often recently when I ask people how they are doing: drained, exhausted, worn out. The Covid-19 pandemic is taking a toll on everyone’s mental health each and every day it drags on. This is due to a lot of factors of course, and one of those factors relates to feeling deeply disconnected from one another, and from all the engagement, contentment, and fun we used to experience before the pandemic. This is one of the reasons why this global health crisis is traumatizing across the board. We share a profound sense of disengagement: from school, from routines, from friends, from certainty.
In my work as a therapist in the northwest Washington, DC area, I specialize in working with clients who have struggled with traumatic life experiences. Many people understand that during traumatic events, we have a neurobiological response, commonly referred to as the “fight/flight/freeze” response. Likewise, many people understand that we have an opposite neurobiological response, commonly referred to as the “rest/digest” process, that calms us down. Our nervous systems used to be thought of as these two competing systems, and one or the other was “in charge” at any given moment.
However, there is a growing body of research that suggests that our nervous system is far more complex than this two-part system. Stephen Porges and his team of researchers have focused their work on studying the Vagus nerve, and they posit that there is, in fact, another entire part of our nervous system, influenced by the ventral branch of the vagal nerve.
This branch of the vagal nerve controls our social engagement system – the system that involves the happy balance between feeling safe but activated. Think: if you’re at a pleasant get together with friends, you don’t have the same “activated” feeling of fight or flight, nor are you totally at rest. It is a balance of both.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons we are feeling so drained, exhausted and worn out; we are not using this incredibly important part of our nervous system nearly as much as we are used to, or as much as would be healthy for us. It could be a helpful strategy, now more than ever, to think about things we feel truly engaged in – activities where we feel ourselves experiencing that positive balance of activated and at ease.
This could be:
- hiking in a place we feel connected to
- watching a movie with plot/features we are interested in
- listening to music we love, or playing an instrument
- gardening, and learning more about what it takes to get plants to grow
- re-reading an old book you loved years ago, or something new from a genre you’ve always liked
- watching funny videos with your family members, and enjoy laughing at the same parts
- engaging in some form of art, and focusing only on that activity for a short period of time: crafting, painting, writing, dancing
- and, of course, engage in friends in socially distant ways that feel safe to you
While we cannot “connect” with the world and the people around us in ways we are used to right now, there are ways to experience that same sense of connection and engagement that could help break the sense of being drained, and we could all use a little bit more of that now.