In what turned out to be rather serendipitous timing, I was enrolled in a course on trauma at the start of the pandemic. I was there to understand what it is, how it manifests in the physical body and – more importantly – how to create a container for folx to move through it safely. At that time, Vancouver had just begun its first lock down; what were once overcrowded streets were now bare, bustling shops were boarded up and I was trying to keep busy in a 500 sq foot apartment. When the chance cam
e to leave our abode for groceries or our daily walk to stretch our legs, we were all encouraged to wear some sort of face covering. It was a rational and seemingly innocent request; something small that I could do to protect my community. Unbeknownst to me, I had not yet been fully introduced to the nervous system. Unbeknownst to us all, we were all on the cusp of understanding this component a little bit better when we lost the opportunity to see each other’s faces.
As I sat in front of the screen, enrolled in what would be my first of many (many) ZOOM courses and meetings, the facilitators piqued my interest when they mentioned that they preferred an online approach where we could continue to see each other’s faces rather than wearing a mask in person for this particular course. And then they explained why: If you have yet to meet the social nervous system as presented by the polyvagal theory, please do read on.
The polyvagal theory was brought forward by Stephen Porges and it is named for the many (poly) branches of the vagus nerve (vagal.) If you’ve been following along with naturopathic medicine for awhile then you know that we are interested in this nerve. The vagus nerve runs from the brain through the face, throat, heart to the organs residing in your abdomen. We discuss it most often in cases of mental health and digestion and if you’ve ever heard the phrase “rest and digest!” then you’ve also met at least a portion of this nerve.
The polyvagal theory invites us to think beyond our understanding of the autonomic nervous system whereby there is a sympathetic (fight/flight) and parasympathetic (rest/digest) response. This theory introduced the social nervous system; the system that essentially governs our social relationships.
With our social nervous system, we are continually scanning our environment and those in our environment (i.e. their facial expressions, their tone, their body language) to determine whether or not we are safe. Safety is drastically different for everyone as it is influenced by internal and external factors. However, once the pandemic began, we quite suddenly lost the capacity to assess our own safety. When we scanned the crowd to observe facial expressions, we were only permitted to see half of the faces and therefore our safety was inconclusive. Around the same time, we lost the capacity to share space with others and observe their body language and their tone. Many of us relied on emails or text messages to complete tasks or check in without realizing that our nervous systems were not built to communicate in these ways. The course facilitators knew that reading facial expressions was a critical part to feeling safe; when we feel safe, we are in a better position to take in new information and solidify techniques among many other possibilities.
Without the understanding of the social nervous system, we neglect to fully understand how the pandemic has contributed to our understanding of trauma, safety and nervous system function. Within this context, the rise in mental health concerns and dysmotility take on a new light and this offers us valuable information on how to bring the body back to homeostasis. This is obviously not to discredit the importance of masking in public spaces in order to keep our community safe. Of course not. Instead, it is an invitation to make the most out of your mask free time when you are near the people that you likely love and cherish the most. Put down the phone, make eye contact and express yourself fully. Our nervous systems depend on it.