Shifting From Isolation to Social Engagement

Shifting from isolation to social engagement

The start of a new year is a great time to reflect upon our journey over the past year. It’s also a great time to check in with our mental health. Ask yourself: What are my big wins? How am I feeling? What impact have the challenges of the past couple of years had on my nervous system? How can I make self-care a priority in 2022?  Personally, I learned a lot on my journey of shifting my nervous system from a state of isolation and fear to return to a place of social engagement and feelings of being safe. I’d like to share what I learned.

Background: 2021 Was a Challenging Year

My personal challenges over the past year included dealing with the sudden death of a parent from suicide, major home renovations after water damage, ADHD overwhelm, a career transition, testing positive for COVID — once again having to cancel family holiday gatherings — and being thrown back into isolation.

My nervous system broke down from an extended stress state of fight, flight, and freeze and finding my way back was a struggle. This is what I learned on my journey of shifting my nervous system out of fear to social engagement and feelings of being safe. I’ve included exercises and concepts that you might like to use for yourself or with clients.

Understanding Fight, Flight, or Freeze

The terms “fight or flight” and “rest and digest” are typically what we refer to when discussing the autonomic nervous system. Normally, we shift through these states naturally, but in times of high or extended stress or threat we can get stuck in a “freeze” state. This state is said to activate our Dorsal Vagal Complex leading to feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness.

The term comes from the Polyvagal Theory which divides our nervous system into states split between two branches of the vagus nerve — Dorsal and Ventral. The Ventral Vagal Complex is our state of “social engagement” where we feel connected to ourselves and the world around us. It allows us to feel grounded, mindful, joyful, curious, empathetic, compassionate, and safe.

Moving Beyond Fear

Human contact and social engagement is one way we co-regulate to achieve a sense of feeling safe. We’re able to do this because we pick up social cues from our environment and the people in it. The connections we forge through social engagement — connection to our friends, families, communities, clients, and pets, as well as connection with our bodies and our feelings — are major keys to our well-being.

An absence of connection (either real or imaginary) can be perceived as a threat to our survival and trigger the Dorsal Vagal Circuit to keep us stuck in a defensive state of feeling sad, anxious, empty, irritable, and restless. The longer that we perceive ourselves as being disconnected from our world, the more we stay stuck in fear.

How then can we activate this state of social engagement while isolating?

Achieving a State of Social Engagement While in Isolation

Activating the Ventral Vagal Circuit through connection can lift us out of the Dorsal Vagal state, but what do we do when we can’t get out to connect and co-regulate? Stanley Rosenberg gives us a basic exercise that uses eye movement to stimulate the vagus nerve to achieve a state of calm and social engagement. It can be done either sitting or lying on your back.

  • Interlace your fingers and bring them behind your head — right at the base of the skull.
  • Take a minute to really let your head settle in the middle, just resting on your hands, and keep your eyes open.
  • Look with your eyes only (no head movement) to the right until you sigh, swallow, or yawn (approximately 30-60 seconds).
  • Move your eyes back to the centre and repeat the exercise on the other side.

Activating Our Still Point

During times of isolation, we can also experience calm by turning our attention from the outer world to inner awareness —  connecting mind, heart, and body to hear the sound of our soul. This “still point” is that voice deep inside that speaks to you when you create the space of quiet.

Still point is also a technique used in Craniosacral therapy (CST). It has ability to balance the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems resulting in a sense of inner peace by “generating deeper states of self-knowing, self-understanding, and self-acceptance.”

Getting to a Place of Feeling Safe

We can get a “sense” of how we are feeling by placing our hands on the lower part of our abdomen and “listening” with them to what our body telling us. Through our touch, we can also “speak” to our body to communicate our intentions (such as encouraging our immune system to activate and eliminate illness). Sensing our bodies and staying grounded can help us to remain in a ventral vagal parasympathetic state.

Another way to connect with our body, soothe our vagus nerve, and induce a sense of calm is through our breath. Physically slowing down and taking deep breaths with long exhales lets our nervous system know that it can relax and that we are in a safe place. When our exhale is longer than our inhale, our parasympathetic nervous system gets activated.

Meeting Our Basic Needs

Our basic needs for survival, safety, and social belonging have been challenged over the past couple of years. Humans have a need to belong, to love, and be loved and a lack of social connection can cause our nervous system to freeze.

Taking a time out to go within and adapting a mindfulness practice during periods of stress can give us an opportunity to shift our perception of isolation to social engagement. Use this time to activate your curiosity and creative self-expression and to rediscover your true and authentic self. Find your tribe and connect. Feel the light of love inside, let it shine outwards, and be the connection for others.

We can train our bodies to feel safe and face fear with harmony, self-compassion, and joy. My wish is that 2022 gives us an opportunity to live and work from our hearts; teaching us about social connection through and beyond isolation. Make this the year for self-care. Additional resources for career professionals and their clients can be learned through pursuing certification as a Canadian Work-Life Strategist (CWS).

May we all be happy. May we all be safe. May we all be well. May we all be loved!

Carol Brochu combines a 30+ year career in HR, operations, and client service with a unique personal and spiritual development journey that has included studies in Mental Health First Aidenergy work, and self-care disciplines. She is a certified yoga and martial arts instructor, mindfulness facilitator, Me First practitioner, CPC member, and Certified Work-Life Strategist.

Photo by fizkes on 123RF

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Thank you for bravely sharing your personal challenges in 2021. My heart goes out to you on the loss of a parent from suicide. The others compound this one, of course.

We have all had trials and your vagal exercise intrigued me and I immediately tried it. I sure did yawn! I will try it again to deal with a family member who is into conspiracy theories and is upset with me that I do not want to listen and “learn” from what this family member believes.

Thank you also for a great article that gives one such perspective into why we are all rather beleaguered and spent about now.

Thanks Stephanie….Today is actually the 1 year anniversary and I am feeling a little challenged. Took the opportunity to get out for a lunchtime walk with my husband. Social connection, nature, sun, fresh air all contribute to soothing our nervous system. What helps me manage my anxiety is a continuous practice of self-care, self-awareness and self-regulation. The basic exercise and similar work with the vagus nerve are great tools to help reset our body’s automatic response.

Carol, my heart goes out to you for all you’ve gone through and I’m truly thankful that you’ve chosen to share your experience as well as your expertise with others through this post.

I was drawn to the title because I found the second half of 2021 very challenging, going from being settled into a relatively isolated lifestyle to being able to – and expected to – engage in social activities outside the home. Now I’m just confused, but I’ve found that being mindful of my feelings and actions does make a big difference.

I totally agree Janet….I was starting to feel comfortable and safe in isolation but then that can get us stuck as well. The key is balance as social engagement actually stimulates this ventral vagal response that can help us to regulate our nervous system. We can be engaged in social activities without feeling socially connected if we don’t feel SAFE. I am actually learning to make better choices now by recognizing situations where I probably never quite “fit in” and self regulating around that awareness. Our challenges become our lessons and our lessons forge our path to new beginnings on our life journey. Wishing you heartfelt joy and connection inside and out.