I’ve mentioned it a few times here and there, and if you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I regularly attend online worship at The Gathering, a wonderful, 100% welcoming with no asterisks, warms the bleeding heart of the liberal, isn’t afraid to go there, always stands in its values church. We’ve been attending for about a year and a half, and this fall I was called to lead a CoreGroup, which is essentially the modern version of small group bible study.
Hold on, because, though it may have originated in a church community, you might not expect that the story I’m about to share is about science and the nervous system and your response to living through a pandemic.
So, for whatever reason, the group I’m leading attracted a split of older, retired women (60+), and women my age (mid-30s). Believe me, I’m super into it, because it makes for incredible conversation. But what’s even cooler about it is the backgrounds of the women, and how that enhances the conversation.
One woman in particular has been open in sharing her life story, which includes growing up in the church, almost marrying a Catholic guy but steering away from that when the priest she consulted with about converting told her she was so spiritual she’d literally have to be a nun if she converted, becoming a minister for several decades, and eventually evolving to a place of much, much broader spirituality beyond any church or religion, becoming a non-theist, as she terms it. I’ve honestly never met someone so well-versed in scripture and history, as well as communication and relating to other humans. This woman has done some really, really life-changing work, and continues to do so well into her 70s. And as I’m not yet a non-theist, this makes me sure that God works in mysterious ways and brought us together for a reason.
Anyway, we’re in the middle of a sermon series about disruption. Relevant to current times, yes? Even though it’s framed through events that happened, like, 800 years ago, all the same themes remain, which is wild beyond belief at times. Last week, we talked about how the root of disruption is unfair expectations. This week, we talked about how authentic hope is rooted in reality, not denial.
Powerful stuff, no matter your belief system.
As we talked more about hope in our small group the other day, we got to sharing our personal responses to the pandemic. One of the women shared that she was just now getting to the point where most people were in March and April – bored, listless, wandering around the house wondering what the hell she’s supposed to do with herself. I shared that my hope has not wavered too much, that it’s been a theme for me since December, helping me to stay clear-eyed – or at least able keep it in my heart as a touchpoint, balancing out the periods of despair, making it a little easier to return to hope. The other woman I mentioned above shared she was struggling with despairing, more than any other time in her life.
And then she started telling us about polyvagal theory.
(I told you this is a great church. #webelieveinscience)
You may be familiar with this already. I know a lot of my friends and colleagues are, especially those who are learning and training in trauma response. I was familiar with the term and some of the ideas, but not the details, so I was glad to hear a summary. Down and dirty, it basically goes like this:
Total collapse is a built in, protective response and primitive survival response to threat of death. (Think: you might actually die from a totally unknown and uncontrolled pandemic virus.)
Next, fight or flight response, anger or fear. It’s the second-best protection, kicking in when in danger.
Finally, camaraderie, social engagement, is the most evolved response system. This is where we find safety, in others, in our environment, and in ourselves.
After that little mini lecture, there was a moment of silence, and then a cacophony of, “OMG THIS TOTALLY MAKES SENSE WHAT A RELIEF!!!!” And doesn’t it?
I got to thinking about just how many friends, colleagues, and clients I’ve had conversations with in the last six months. How many of them experienced total collapse. And how many of them felt totally ashamed about it. No one ever entertained the idea that maybe, just maybe, that collapse was a perfectly human, biological response to survive. Every one of them felt more pressure to keep going, force themselves to engage, to do things, to be fucking productive.
I’m not going to say I’m any kind of an expert, but I will 100% own that I have an innate talent for sussing out bullshit. And apparently, at that innate level, I understood that forcing ourselves to engage when we needed to detach, to keep going when we needed to freeze, to be happy when we felt sad, was bullshit.
Apparently, I already understood something about polyvagal theory and the trauma response of collapsing. Because I told every single person I met that this is normal. This “I can’t” response is exactly what your body and your brain need. This is an unprecedented, unknown, uncertain, in perpetuity situation, and withdrawing to protect yourself – giving up, if you will – is part of getting through it. Contrary to what our society and culture would have us believe, there’s no shame in that. Give yourself a chance.
Do we want to try to move forward in our response toward the safety of community? Yes, sure. But there’s no specified timeline for that. There’s also no specified way to get there. Some of us will get angry in order to move into a space of action – from “I can’t” to “I can.” Some of us will take small steps to push past our fears and move into a space of joy and presence – from “I can” to “I am.”
There’s no one way to survive, y’all.
A really good way to do it, though, is eventually going to be in community, together. With others, mates, friends, family (or chosen family), strangers on the internet, church groups, whatever, whoever. Isolation and collapse will help us survive, for a while. But not for the long term. We won’t thrive there.
I get that community is hard right now. It might not actually feel all that safe. But this is where human ingenuity can become a beautiful thing. Get creative. Use your frustration to spark your imagination. Find your people, love them hard. Like:
- Send three texts right now.
- Hit reply and email me literally anything you want.
- CALL SOMEONE. (I guarantee you’ll make their day. And also, there’s a 50% chance they won’t even answer and you’ll just leave a voicemail, so stop getting so nervous.)
- Schedule a Zoom meeting with someone you haven’t seen in a month. (I know, I know, Zoom fatigue. So make it a person you really want to see.)
- Create a new text chain with unlikely friends from different webs of your life.
- Set up a socially distanced outdoor coffee date or walk. (It’s getting to be a perfect time of year for this – take advantage.)
- Join the online membership group you’ve been mulling over for months.
- Grab takeout with your friend(s) and then have an outdoor picnic.
- Sign up to volunteer for something you believe in. (Online or in person, this is bound to generate a feeling of camaraderie.)
You need to protect yourself and your needs, at a very basic level, first and foremost. Collapse is OK. Collapsing again is OK! Please, try to release this idea that you’re a bad person for not being able to carry on like nothing’s changed, like nothing’s happening, like the world isn’t breaking a part piece by piece (RIP, RBG).
But next, whenever you’re ready, please, try to release this idea that you need to go it alone absolutely forever. That you have to be the one to pull yourself together. That gritting your teeth all by yourself and fighting all your instincts is the only way to survive. That reaching out to others is a burden. Especially right now, because we all feel a little bit alone, I can almost guarantee you it feels less like a burden on the receiving end and more like a gift – and potentially a lifeline.
So, if you’ve been thinking or feeling like the only way you can get through this is by hunkering down, day by day – you’re right. But if you’ve also been thinking or saying something along the lines of, “the only way we’ll get through this is together!” – guess what? You’re also right.
Life is full of both/ands. Do your best to embrace all the responses, all the possibilities, and soon enough, surviving will turn into hope will turn into thriving.
Polyvagal theory is not at this time widely accepted in the scientific community, some neuroscientists holding that there’s no evidence to support it. It is, however, pretty widely used among clinicians and practitioners. Take all that for what you will. Do your own digging, be discerning, and remember, you get to choose. If it feels right for you, go with it. Not everything needs to be firmly grounded in some kind of rigid research. Here are a couple of resources to check out if ya wanna: book, book, article, original author/researcher.
For more conversations on surviving and thriving, sign up for weekly emails from me. And if you need a little community? Check out a few ways we can work together. I’m here for you.