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 Aid, energy 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.