The Psychological Discovery That Can Keep You Calm During This Crisis

One of the most important dynamics in psychology was discovered by neurological researcher and professor of psychiatry Stephen Porges. He recently published an article based on his discovery in the journal Clinical Neuropsychiatry. It is titled, “The COVID-19 Pandemic is a Paradoxical Challenge to Our Nervous System: A Polyvagal Perspective.” He summaries his discovery in one tightly packed paragraph. If you are not already familiar with his work, it may not be decipherable. I’ll paste it here for you to read, and then we’ll unpack it.

Our defense repertoire is first expressed as chronic mobilization requiring activation of the sympathetic nervous system and then expressed as immobilization controlled by an evolutionarily older unmyelinated vagal pathway. In the absence of an active social engagement system, the mobilized state provides an efficient neural platform for fight and flight behaviors. For many individuals this state will reflect chronic anxiety or irritability. When mobilization does not successfully move the individual into a safe context, then there is the possibility that the nervous system will shift into an immobilized state with associated features of death feigning, syncope, dissociation, withdrawal, loss of purpose, social isolation, despair, and depression. Although both defensive strategies have adaptive values in protecting the individual, they are dependent on different neural pathways (i.e., high sympathetic tone or high dorsal vagal tone), which both interfere with interpersonal interactions, co-regulation, accessibility, trust, and feeling safe with another person. Thus, defensive states emerge from neural platforms that evolved to defend, while simultaneously compromising capacities to down-regulate our defenses through the coregulation with a safe and trusted individual. Basically, the theory emphasizes that in the presence of cues of predictable social interactions of support our nervous system of safety, the mammalian social engagement system, can downregulate our innate reactions to threat, whether the threat is tangible and observable or invisible and imaginable.

Our Innate Defensive Response

Our defense repertoire is first expressed as chronic mobilization . . . .

When we are born, our ability to get upset is fully developed. We all know infants can scream bloody murder. This hyperarousal is the result of the release of stress hormones. The amygdala releases stress hormones whenever it senses something unexpected or unfamiliar, and birth is, to the infant, unexpected and unfamiliar. How could an infant not release stress hormones?

The stress hormones activate what is commonly called the “fight or flight response.” Dr. Porges refers to the fight or flight response as the mobilization response. There is a good reason for that. His discovery is about how we can do the opposite, and immobilize.

Some creatures are genetically programmed to operate in groups or packs. But our innate way to respond to threat is to run or to fight. We have a genetic potential to work together. But for the potential to develop enough for us to set aside our tendency to run or to fight when stressed, the experiences we have when we are forced to depend on others during childhood must be response to our emotional and physical needs — not as our caregivers see it, but as we as children experience it.

By working together, we humans can not only protect ourselves from most threats, but can accomplish things that are impossible to achieve solo. Dr. Porges’ study looks at how genetic programming gives humans the potential to set aside our innate tendency to mobilize. He calls our neurobiologically based potential to relate — rather than to run or fight when stress hormones are released — the Social Engagement System.

Signals That Down-Regulate Our Defensive Response

. . . in the presence of cues of predictable social interactions of support our nervous system . . . can downregulate our inherent reactions to threat . . . .

Porges says when we are with other people, we unconsciously receive signals that indicate how safe we are physically and emotionally in their presence. The signals come from their face, voice quality, and body-language/touch. If the signals indicate benign intent, the Social Engagement System sets our innate defensive response aside. Porges says the human need for health, growth, rest, and reproduction depends upon this ability to feel safe, even if our ace-in-the-hole, mobilization (fight or flight), has been put on hold.

Our Social Engagement System App

(The social engagement system can) down-regulate our defenses through the coregulation with a safe and trusted individual.

Our ability to set aside defensiveness is based on genetics. But the genetic potential must be fleshed out by a secure relationship. As an infant, we depend on caregivers to down-regulate us when hyperaroused. If things go well and our emotional needs are consistently met, the relationship feels safe. Over time, we build inside what attachment theorist John Bowlby called an “internal working model of secure attachment.” This internal model is a constellation of memories of being responded to. But as a working model, its memories cause things to happen. Think of it as a Social Engagement App. Instead of needing a live caregiver to activate our calming system (parasypathetic nervous system), the App — via reference to the benign memories — supplies a virtual caregiver to activate our calming system.

But for some of us, social engagement is not comfortable. Their Social Engagement App, perhaps because of unreliable response by caregivers, does not activate their parasympathetic nervous system.

When The App Doesn’t Supply A Virtual Calming Person

In the absence of an active social engagement system, the mobilized state provides an efficient neural platform for fight and flight behaviors. For many individuals this state will reflect chronic anxiety or irritability.

To prevent chronic anxiety, our Social Engagement System App uses its storehouse about what usually happens in relationship to carry us through moments when no one is sending us a calming signal. If the memories in a person’s App indicate what usually happens in relationships is distressing or traumatic, the App lacks a calming figure that can set mobilization aside.

Research has shown that if a caregiver frightens a child just one time, the child will not be securely attached to that caregiver. The Social Engagement App, like an elephant, never forgets that transgression.

An Actual Calming Person

. . . defensive states emerge . . . compromising capacities to down-regulate our defenses through the coregulation with a safe and trusted individual.

With no App to calm us, we need a person to calm us. But even in the presence of another person, we may not constantly receive benign signals. They may have their own concerns in mind. They may be focused on a project or something entertaining. If so, they may not, at the moment we need calming, be sending us a calming signal.

When no signals are being received from the person we are with, and our App has no built-in data upon which to build an expectation of being physically and emotionally safe, we have no basis for what Porges calls “immobilization with safety.”

Though we never outgrow our need for relationships with real people, we can’t — and shouldn’t — solely depend on others. It is too much to ask of another person. We need to build inside a workable Social Engagement App that can carry us through when others are “doing their own thing.”

Our Emotional Challenge During The COVID-19 Crisis

. . . the threat shifts our autonomic nervous system into states of defense.

During this crisis we need to feel calm enough to immobilize and shelter in place. But, as Porges writes, “. . . the resources of human contact that humans intuitively use to calm, may now signal threat. This perspective places us in a quandary, since we now need to both avoid the virus and socially connect.”

Calming During The COVID-19 Crisis

(The) social engagement system can downregulate our innate reactions to threat, whether the threat is tangible and observable or invisible and imaginable.

As they face imagined threats, passengers on an airliner cannot rely on mobilization for physical safety or for emotional safety. In my work with fearful fliers, I teach them how and why airliners are so remarkably safe. Then for emotional safety, we link the flight experience to the memory of a trusted person’s face, voice quality, and touch. Repetition of an exercise “installs” the trusted person’s signals in the Social Engagement App in the client’s mind. This provides a source of calming which works even when flying alone.

Similarly, if sheltering in place is done solo, we need a virtual person to help us set aside our urge to mobilize. How do we identify a person to “install” in our App? How do we go about installing them? This is the subject of my book Panic Free Pandemic Workbook: Exercises To Calm Pandemic-Related Fear, Anxiety, and Claustrophobia. You can read a sample of it by clicking on the cover photo.

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Capt Tom Bunn

Tom Bunn is a retired airline captain and licensed therapist. He is the originator of the SOAR Fear of Flying Program.