Why Are Folks Taking Higher Risks in the Time of CoVID?

Post 7/1/2020

Why is there so much CoVID exhaustion? Why are folks taking higher risks?

It is all physiology people!

We have been living with an actual threat to our safety for months now. This constant state of hypervigilance, interruption of our lives, the anxiety of the eternal unknown, powerlessness, and straight-up fear are putting our bodies and nervous systems into the sympathetic (fight or flight) hyper-arousal. Our minds and bodies are evolutionarily equipped to fight or flight. This evolutionary ability to get to safety is meant for the short term. Our health suffers; our mind and our emotions suffer when it becomes chronic. 

Many folks in this ramped up fight or flight (also called the sympathetic nervous system) physical state demonstrate fight by fighting with others or fighting authority, or placing blame and condemnation to those and that which threatens us. This has folks staying in motion— moving to cope with the discomfort of this physical and emotional response. We’re prone to take more risks, engage in risky and destructive behaviors, self-sabotage, and lash out at others.

We demonstrate the flight part of this response with wanting to numb; numb with alcohol, drugs, Netflix, gaming. In other words, “check out”. The discomfort of the hyperarousal state can be so severe that we turn everything off or a freezing response (Have you ever seen a fainting goat or an opossum that looks dead?). We may feel frozen with overwhelm, or low energy, or inability to move forward with something. We may create physical illness (unconsciously) for the chance to turn off for a while.

This state of unregulated hyper-arousal eventually depletes us, making us more susceptible to the virus and other illnesses. Our body suffers, our psyche is impacted. Really, all of these physiologic changes are uncontrollable if we do not have the self-awareness to catch the sympathetic response. We may not understand our behaviors or the behaviors of others, but really we’re just trying to cope and return to homeostasis. There is a braking system (the parasympathetic or Vagal nervous system). However, this braking system is more and more disabled with the increasing or chronic hyper-arousal state. According to Polyvagal Theory, vagal neural activation is designed and can be recruited to slow down this charged emotional and physical state. Compensation at a neurochemical level occurs with body relaxation, a sense of wellbeing, calm, and feelings of physical and emotional safety. In summary, our system will ramp-up higher and higher, all while it is shutting down the exact system that is there to counter that state. Our threat response brakes are broken! The safety threat is running the show!

So, why do folks gather in crowds, take health risks, do the drinking and partying? Why is there such a feeling of unrest and CoVID19 exhaustion? Well, we naturally want to gather and be with other human beings. This recruits the vagal system (the brakes to the threat response). Fun, social interaction, humor, play, team exercise are all unconscious ways to get what we need – ie. interrupt the hyper-arousal state that is so uncomfortable. Response to a pandemic requires social distancing and isolation of at-risk folks – the exact opposite of what is psychologically needed to handle the very real threat. The parasympathetic/vagal circuit (the brake) is stimulated by social engagement and known, safe, familiar relationships interactions. Social engagement is key for this balancing response. We are calmed by the facial expressions, intonations of voice, body language and presence of other loving human beings. We breath more deeply, exhale longer, relax our body to engage this vagal system and extend it. The threat response is calmed and with that human loving connection (it could also be a dog or other pet that always loves us uconditionally), feelings and the experience of safety and calm are possible. We return to homeostasis; the hyper-arousal due to the threat is countered. Health, wellness, and calm can return.

So what can we do? Dr. Porges, who is an expert in trauma and trauma response, says activities that lengthen the respiratory exhale (deep breathing), bio-feedback, mindfulness, meditation, singing, chanting. And most importantly, research by Dr. Porges and others confirm that face to face interactions through virtual gathering also activate the vagal system quite efficiently. Gathering is the piece that is missing and a powerful health, resilience, and wellbeing tool. This interaction with others acts to recruit those vagal neural pathways that lead to calm and experience of safety, thereby countering the hyper-arousal state. Video conferencing allows us to actually see facial expressions, hear intonations of voice, observe body language, interact with those expressions, and get a sense presence and affinity with another. These are the cues required to have the vagal system engaged, applying the brakes to the hyper-arousal of constant threat. Yes, it would be preferable and what we are accustomed to; gathering in person. The ability to gather, to hug, embrace, kiss, shake hands, mourn, have fun, joke, and play- all the things that are difficult to do right now are actually needed now more than ever. And, video conferencing/virtual gatherings and relating is the next best thing we have for right now.

So, I suggest that we bring compassion and understanding to the grumpy, lonely, misdirected, seemingly deaf, risk-taking fellow human beings. This does not mean we condone risky behavior, but compassion can create an environment to educate and change minds and hearts. Compassion creates a space for human beings to show up as their best self – without judgement and blame to get in the way of a life-saving message. Hug those in your household/safe circle, and video conference/virtual gather those individuals you are physically distanced from. It will save lives!

Make sense? I did my best to explain. Lol!

How can you do more virtual socializing? Who needs to see your face? Where can you bring compassion and presence?

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