Breaking Quarantine: Handling Our Trauma Responses.
“The Force will be with you… always.”
“Luke, the Force will be with you.”
“Use the Force, Luke.”
“Remember, the Force will be with you always.” ~ Obi-Wan Kenobi
One Way Up and Two Ways Down:
That is the simplest way I know to introduce you to The Force: the ANS or the Autonomic Nervous System. The ANS has three branches, one sympathetic and two parasympathetic. The sympathetic (SNS) branch is responsible for the entire spectrum of arousal from excitation and alertness (at the low end of its functional range aka ‘tone’) to the mobilization of the fight-or-flight response on the high end.
That’s your one way up!
The parasympathetic portion of your nervous system, by contrast, consists of two branches (or two ways to bring you down off the ledge): the VV (ventral vagus) and the DV (dorsal vagus). Both are responsible for putting the brakes on when the SNS starts freaking out because life has started to look a little too Lord of the Flies.
Consider the VV to be your modern, upgraded gaming system (with internet and highly nuanced control) and the DV to be more like the old Atari games we used to play in the 80s (remember how ridiculously crude the joysticks were?).
“The ventral vagus (VV) acts as a braking mechanism to inhibit the sympathetic system in a nuanced way, while the more primitive dorsal vagus (DV) supports deep rest and all silent metabolic functions at its low tone and at its extreme high tone, supports the freeze response (death feigning).
The ventral vagus supports our use of the social engagement system to mitigate arousal when we feel threatened.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
I sure hope you didn’t skim the quote or pause to check social media because whew, that last part delivered some vital information!
Bottom Line: People keep breaking quarantine because the ANS, which controls our trauma responses (fight, flight, and freeze), is compelling us to seek out others in order to mitigate our very real sense of threat.
Those who are able to keep the quarantine (a) are sharing their quarantine with loved ones, (b) have an extraordinarily well-developed capacity to self-soothe, or (c) have begun to almost exclusively use the DV to break arousal (if they break arousal at all versus the equally harmful response of spinning out in constant activation like all those people yelling at Trader Joe’s managers about mask mandates).
To help you understand why this is true, I need to offer a bit more information on both the VV and the DV.
The crucial difference between the DV and the VV is something called myelination.
“Myelination (the wrapping of the nerve cell in myelin, a fatty material that functions similarly to electrical insulation) aids nerve function. It supports the nerve to send more accurate and rapid messages.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
The more nuanced and accurate VV is myelinated, the DV is not.
Though myelination continues through early adulthood, the first 18 months are the most critical. How well the myelination process unfolded in the first 18 months of your life (especially the first six months) determines how well you are able to self-soothe and also determines how effectively you are able to both form and rely on community and connection to decrease arousal in the face of threat.
The VV regulates the heart and lungs and influences the face, eyes, vocal cords, and ears. In short, all the things that essentially support social interaction are controlled or influenced by the VV.
“When we are in a safe relationship with others, the VV also brings our heartbeat and breathing into co-regulation with our companion, which contributes to our experience of feeling “connected.” Without these capacities, our ability to cultivate relationships and create community becomes compromised…
We experience greater intellectual success, engage in healthy and more pro-social behavior, and enjoy both physical and mental health when our ventral vagus system is uninhibited by fear and isolation.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
Without the experience of loving responses from caregivers, infants are not able to reduce arousal (fight-or-flight responses) when they feel threatened other than through death feigning responses. Likewise, the function of the VV doesn’t fully develop, which, in turn, causes diminished capacity for relationship with others and for self-regulation in adulthood.
In short, our ability to self-soothe depends (at least in part) on having been soothed while the myelination process unfolded. But another factor is critical. A fully developed VV lends itself to actually having strong networks of support. With those networks intact, self-soothing or self-regulation is more likely.
So, let’s break this down!
The isolation of quarantine is pretty much insufferable because our biology pushes us, especially those of us with the healthiest VV development, to seek out others in times of threat.
Both COVID and prolonged isolation are threats!
Our biology literally pushes us to sync our hearts with those of our loved ones. Ironically, those of use with the healthiest VV development are much more likely to have strong networks of support, and therefore, to be able to endure the isolation of quarantine as a temporary, albeit painful period of isolation.
But one way or the other, when the isolation goes on too long, especially in the midst of rising danger from more virulent strains of COVID (along with all the secondary effects from economic collapse to social unrest) a truly healthy, biologically ordained response demands that we reach for those we love.
If we don’t, or if we don’t have the capacity due to reduced VV function (from early neglect and trauma), we move along the dangerous path of relying on the DV to break arousal (or we wind up in a constant state of high tone SNS arousal, which has its own implications like the aforementioned people yelling like lunatics about masks).
“This portion of the vagus nerve is unmyelinated, and while it is neurologically slower than the ventral vagus, it has a powerful capacity to apply an inhibition system using something like blunt force. In this deep energy-conservation state, or freeze, we feel less pain and our memories of terror become blurred.
We are meant to use this state exclusively in extreme danger. High-tone DV is an effective management strategy in circumstances of abject life threat, but it is a dangerous option for mammals. Shutting down too forcefully or for too long can be lethal, resulting in suppressed breathing or heart rate.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
Unfortunately, trauma can predispose us to overuse the DV instead of the VV, which depends on social engagement to support us in times of threat. This reality will be exacerbated if we have had prior trauma, especially early-childhood trauma. The end result is a fight-flight state of arousal frozen beneath the death feigning response of the DV.
Have you ever gunned an engine with the brake pressed to the floor?
“If we cannot find a way to resolve these two contrary survival responses, we are likely to end up in a chronic state of hyperarousal while trapped in this freeze, like putting one foot firmly on the gas and the other, equally firmly, on the brakes.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
This is a serious, seldom-considered impact of the extended social isolation the COVID pandemic has required. Even at recommended distances (of 6 feet), our needs for social engagement are not necessarily met because (according to my training with the HeartMath Institute) the electromagnetic field of the human heart extends just about 3 feet (making it hard to co-regulate at social distances of 6 feet).
The end result of extended high tone DV activation range from digestive problems to problems with suppressed circulation and respiration.
“If we become habituated to this state, our capacity to assimilate nutrients and convert food into energy will be severely compromised, and we may also develop cardiac or pulmonary symptoms.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
Further, the functions of our logical brain (or prefrontal cortex) will also be compromised, leading to poorer decision-making that lacks the relational dimension made possible by the social engagement of the VV. This has broad personal and societal implications.
So, what can we do about all of this?
The very best thing we can do is actually find ways to be with others that are as safe and as physically close as possible. But I can’t advise you on how to do that. I will leave it up to you to imagine ways to rely on relationships for support during these trying times without getting yourself seriously ill or worse.
In the absence of close, intimate contact with loved ones, there is something else you can do. When we are living from our ventral vagal platform, something interesting happens.
“Our heart is providing a coherent rhythm that regulates every autonomic function of our body–we are functioning like a well-oiled machine.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
There’s the magic word: coherence.
If the ventral vagal platform gives rise to coherence, might coherence take us out of high tone DV activation and into VV activation? I think it is worth a try! In fact, I know it is. The rhythms of the heart determine coherence or incoherence on a system-wide basis.
“Beat-to-beat variability in its rhythm communicates everything from peace of mind to abject terror.
The vibrations of qi have a particular line of communication with our brain’s prefrontal cortex, thalamus, amygdala, and other brain structures, and thus they influence the regulation of our entire body, including our immune, endocrine, neurological, and metabolic systems, as well as fear conditioning and other functions.” ~ The Tao of Trauma by Alaine D. Duncan and Kathy L. Kain
Heart coherence can simply (though, perhaps, not easily) be cultivated with a straightforward, three-step process taught to me by the HeartMath Institute as a part of my certification as a HeartMath facilitator:
- Breathe deeply while concentrating your attention on your heart center and imagining your breath flowing in and out through your chest center (remember that respiration and cardiac functions are regulated by the VV);
- Begin to generate positive (regenerative) emotions such as love, joy, courage, gratitude, or peace; and
- Radiate those feelings towards yourself and others.
Now, I am not so naive as to think generating positive emotions is as easy as snapping your fingers. I have tried it and it doesn’t reliably happen for me when I am struggling with the most intense distress. So, you may need something a bit more heavy-hitting, something that is designed to create a more coherent state of mind and body.
I personally use a series of meditations by Dr. Joe Dispenza called Blessing of the Energy Centers. I also use these meditations with clients and the results have been fantastic tools for handling The Force (for harnessing The Force via coherence).
Now, to sum up, in this short article, you have learned that biological imperatives, designed to support your survival and ensure you thrive, are driving you to break quarantine and to seek out companionship, love, and caring.
In other words, breaking quarantine is not a moral failure.
The choice to break out of isolation is driven by covert, biological forces that are at odds with maintaining the social distance necessary to avoid COVID-19. This is not a matter of willpower!
Finally, you have learned both (1) the cost of relying on more primitive, blunt force death feigning (DV activation) to calm your fight-flight response and (2) a simple strategy for achieving coherence via heart-centered practices that may allow you to more easily self-regulate and endure social distancing measures that require long stretches of time alone.