How to Help Our Nervous Systems During a Pandemic

… Finding Ventral Vagal for Our Clients and Ourselves

Silhouettes of people standing in front of a sunset

At the moment, I’m happy to be in my own home, self-quarantining, because I’ve recently been around the world on a training tour. I was in Rome twice. I was in Lisbon. I was in New York City. And when the Covid-19 travel ban was announced, I was in a small town outside Amsterdam. At 4:00 a.m. I made the decision to find a way to get on a flight as my nervous system sent me the message: “I need to get home! I don’t want to be stuck here away from my husband, away from what feels familiar.”

I think that’s something many of us have been feeling in these very uncertain and scary times: a desire for familiarity—familiar environments and people. We have a biological need to be in connection with others that’s being challenged right now. Even if we’re staying at home with others—children, a partner, a mammalian pet—our nervous systems are asking to be cared for in a way that we’re not used to doing. And then there may be other nervous systems around us saying, “Can you pay attention to me, too? Can you have compassion for me, too?”

Some people may be noticing a mobilizing need to get out of this situation or anger at what’s going on. That’s the fight-flight of the nervous system in its sympathetically charged state. Others may be experiencing a sort of despairing, hopeless, disconnecting, numbing shutdown—that’s the dorsal collapse. Although all of those are ways the nervous system helps us survive, we have to make sure not to get stuck in these extreme states. We need to be intentional about cultivating a state of safety, calm, and connection—ventral vagal.

What often takes us out of ventral vagal these days is the indefinite, unpredictable nature of this pandemic. These are cues of danger to the nervous system. Trying to deal with it can feel a bit like trying to put a puzzle together when you don’t have the picture on the box top, so you don’t know what the puzzle is supposed to look like. And while I know there are people in the world who love doing puzzles that way, I’m not one of them. My nervous system wants context for what’s happening. So I try to give it context by getting some information from a reliable news source, and holding onto a belief there are people who are beginning to figure out how to win the fight against this pandemic.

There are other ways to find our way to regulation.  When our nervous system is in a sympathetic fight-flight place, we can bring organized movement into our life. The sympathetic nervous system wants movement—I have to do something!—but the key is for the movement to be organized. If we let the sympathetic nervous system just do its thing, it’s going to be chaotic, messy, and not move us back into regulation. There are any number of ways we can help to bring organization: Get outside and walk or run or bike. Do an online yoga session. Some people are having dance parties online with friends, or even by themselves.

Ask yourself—have your clients ask themselves—what kind of movement would help me? What kind of movement will use the mobilizing energy of my sympathetic system in a way that brings me into regulation? And the time to ask is when you just start to feel the beginnings of mobilizing energy, not when you’ve already been hijacked by it, because by then you’ve lost any connection to the ventral state where your brain is working with you and you can actually get a wise answer.

Ask Your Nervous System

Of course, our inboxes and social media feeds are being flooded with “helpful tips” on how to manage these times. But it’s important to ask your nervous system how it responds to those recommendations. Each nervous system is going to have a different response. Once we take somebody else’s idea and make it into a protocol to follow, we’ve stopped communicating with our own nervous system. We’re then listening to somebody else’s idea about our nervous system. So, especially during this time, we want to create a capacity to turn toward our own nervous system and ask, “Does this feel like it would nourish me?”

Your brain might say, “Oh, yes, I’m going to do this four times a day.” But your nervous system might give you a different answer. For example, I was recently reading about a neighborhood where people were getting together on their front porches every morning at 9 a.m. to have coffee and chat at a safe distance. Part of me thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. I should do that.” But then my nervous system spoke up: “That’s not the way I want to connect right now. It wouldn’t nourish me, it wouldn’t resource me.”

That doesn’t mean I’m throwing out the idea of having porch coffee. Rather, all these tips and recommendations can be a menu of choices. Creating a schedule and a rigid structure may not be the best idea right now, because the nervous system doesn’t like feeling trapped. It wants choice.  So take all the suggestions one at a time and ask your nervous system to weigh in with a yes, no, or maybe. Create your own menu by writing down the suggestions that get a yes or maybe and discarding the ones that get a no. Then every morning go to your menu and ask yourself, “Which one of these things feels like something I might like to try today.” And when you find yourself beginning to move into sympathetic mobilization or dorsal collapse, go to your menu and choose an action.

Given how easy it is to get stuck in a sympathetic state these days, we also need to pay special attention to those moments, or even micro-moments, of ventral vagal connection, regulation, and safety—when we can say, “Oh, I can breathe right now. The world feels okay. It’s not great and I have no idea how I’m going to manage it in the next two weeks, but it’s okay right now.” We need to stop in that moment and fully take it in. And then we want to think, “Okay, how do I find my way back to this place when I’m feeling an overwhelming need to run out of the house or get away from my partner or stop teaching my children math? What are some of the ways that I could discharge some of that energy safely to get back to this place?” And what about that dorsal experience, when you might be despairing, hopeless in bed, not wanting to get up. What are some things you can do to gently bring some energy back in? Write those ideas down. Add them to your menu. 

Giving It a Name

I have moments these days where I think, The world is forever changed, and that’s a stark feeling for my nervous system. It brings up a lot of fear and sadness. So I just need to name it sometimes. In fact, naming is one of the things we can do to help ourselves and our clients: the opportunity to say out loud whatever is in your head is important. Even if you’re only saying it to an empty room, even if it’s texting it to someone, you’re putting it into language and naming it. Then we can bring some curiosity to it. We can say, “Oh, was that my dorsal state sending me that message?” That begins to add the context your nervous system is looking for.

Or the thought could be: “I’m never going to teach a group of therapists again. It’s going to be all online. I don’t know how to do this.” And then I can say, “Oh, that’s my sympathetic state talking. It makes a little more sense now.” Even though I’m in that sympathetic place, I want to remember I have two other states and they’re also active in my system all the time. So not only is that sympathetic story there, but there’s a dorsal story and a regulated ventral story waiting to be heard.

Once I name an experience and know what state it’s coming from, then inviting the other states to chime in is helpful. “Okay, dorsal, what do you have to say about this?” Then, “Okay, ventral, is there something you could add ?”

Being a Leader

Therapists, like all leaders these days, have an even more important role than ever in offering a regulating, reassuring energy that others can connect to and feel. Some people will offer it through music or movement. I offer my ventral energy through words. I believe my responsibility as a therapist is to be a regulated, predictable, solid person in the world, who’s able to say, “Wow, I just had an intense moment of dysregulation and here’s what I did to come back from it.”

I think our clients—as well as our children, partners, colleagues, and neighbors—will find it a comfort to know that they don’t have to be perfect at coping with this. As a matter of fact, they shouldn’t be perfect at it because being human means to dysregulate and come back to regulation. We model this for our clients all the time.

Now, we can model that even more, especially as we’re all navigating the new waters of teletherapy, figuring out: How can I be with another nervous system through a screen? How can I send that reassurance to my client that I’m here, still holding them in the safety of my ventral energy just like when we’re in the office? How can my client and I play with that?

Many clients need extra reassurance right now, and it’s matter of finding out what kind of connection might bring a moment of regulation. I’m hearing from lots of people who just want a message between sessions, a very simple message about noticing what I refer to as glimmers—micro-moments of feeling regulated and safe in the world. So I’ve been sending a lot of messages recently saying, “Thinking about you this morning and sending you a glimmer.” That’s it, but it’s enough to help someone feel seen and feel a moment of connection.

Finding Awe

I’ve also been talking to my clients a lot about awe. It may seem like a strange thing to bring up right now, but awe is an autonomic experience, and it’s available for us every day. Plus, experiencing awe is something we do by ourselves, so it seems particularly suited to this time.

There are lots of ways to connect with moments of awe, whether it’s looking out a window at a scene of nature, finding nature scenes on your computer, listening to music, or looking at art, either around you or on the computer. I encourage people to create an everyday awe practice. The research tells us that we’re drawn to return to the places in which we find awe, so we’re also creating awe environments. For me, I live in a beautiful, quiet place in Maine. When I go out early in the morning and stand under the stars, that’s an awe experience. Unless it’s a cloudy morning, the stars are there for me.

Awe is this moment of feeling small but connected to something vast. And I think in this moment in time, that’s really what we need. We need to know we’re one small person connected intricately to a vast network of people, who are connected to something that’s vaster than human, something bigger than all of us.

Deb Dana

Deb Dana, LCSW is a clinician and consultant specializing in working with complex trauma. She’s a consultant to the Traumatic Stress Research Consortium in the Kinsey Institute and clinical advisor to Khiron Clinics. She developed the Rhythm of Regulation Clinical Training Series and lectures internationally on ways Polyvagal Theory informs work with trauma survivors. Deb is the author of The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: Engaging the Rhythm of Regulation, Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices, co-editor with Stephen Porges of Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies, and creator of the Polyvagal Flip Chart.