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May 4, 2020

Seeking Out Cues of Safety

Here’s the reality…so many things about this global pandemic suck!  Another reality though, is that the restrictions and uncertainty, in some variation, are going to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.  I’ve seen projections saying 18-24 months in total before the second and third wave have finally passed, or a vaccine is created.  Ooof!  So, how do we support ourselves through the challenges?   To address that, I’m going to turn to Psychology and a quote by Groucho Marx.

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today.  I can choose which it shall be.  Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet.  I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it” – Groucho Marx

I love this quote for so many reasons.  First, is the reminder that all we have is today.  When life gets tough, it’s easy to get wrapped up in a longing for things to be different than they are, to live for tomorrow when things will be better.  Or, in the case of this pandemic, to live for the time when restrictions will be lifted and we can go back to seeing family & friends, dining out, going to concerts, and all the other things we miss so dearly right now.  Given how long we could be here though, I think doing what we can to enjoy today is critical, which takes me to my second point.  The quote is a reminder that each day we get to choose how we show up!  It is within our power to make ourselves happy and, during a time when so much is out of our control, that is a heartening idea.  Without tools though, saying that we each have the power to make ourselves happy is not useful, it becomes self-help mumbo jumbo. 

This takes me to the third reality of this pandemic, which is that there are real physiological responses occurring in each of us as we navigate distancing measures and uncertainty.  Our nervous system senses danger in these two strategies because, from an evolutionary perspective, both isolation and uncertainty would have been potentially deadly for much of human history.  Imagine you’re walking out on the savanna alone and you hear a rustling in the grass.  That rustling could be something innocuous, like a mouse, but it could also be something much more ominous.  Because your system is unfamiliar with what threat you might be facing, it makes up stories about what it could be and about what might be required in order to protect you.  Imagine for just another moment that you’re in the same situation with at least one other person.  Even just in imagining it, I’m sure you can get a sense that being with others would increase your feelings of safety. 

Maybe it’s obvious how these concepts extend to our current circumstances, but let’s get into it for just a moment.  In our current environment, we find ourselves confined to our houses, watching as this virus flips our world on its head.  Maybe you’re watching from a distance, hearing about the populations of Europe and New York being devastated as thousands of people die, or maybe you’re feeling the effects hit closer to home through the loss of a job and being faced with questions of how to feed yourself or maintain a roof over your head.  Either way, the uncertainty fires up a stress response as the body’s way of trying to get us to take action and return to safety.  The problem is, there’s no action we can take to alter our circumstances and we have no way of knowing what effect this pandemic is ultimately going to have on the economy or our health and that uncertainty (plus the stress response it’s creating in our bodies) is not going away anytime soon.  In addition, because of the nature of the current situation, having others close, which would normally bring us solace in the midst of uncertainty, has become an additional source of potential threat.  Now the question becomes, what the hell to do with all this information when we have no power to change our circumstances?

First, connect with other mammals as often as you can (yes dogs and cats count too)!  As mammals, our nervous systems evolved to connect with and feel safe with others. We’re actually able to co-regulate our physiology just by being in close proximity.  Meaning, when we have safe and loving interactions with other mammals, our nervous system communicates with theirs to help us regulate our thoughts and emotions.  How cool is that?!  By connecting with others, facial expressivity and intonation of voice are able to convey cues of safety and those cues help us to down regulate out of a defensive state.  Thus, even exchanging a pleasant smile with a stranger from 2 metres away when you’re out for a walk can leave you feeling more connected and supported.  Catching up with friends and family, even from a distance offers two avenues to help regulate your physiology (facial expressivity and voice).  I’ve seen loads of creative ways to do this including video chats, setting up lawn chairs on opposite sides of the street to have a visit, connecting with neighbours from your driveway, or going on a lunch date where each of you sits in your car to eat while parked adjacent to each other.  If you’re lucky enough to be quarantining with pets or family, I encourage you to take many opportunities to cuddle up with them as well as trying to come up with new and creative ways to spend time enjoying each other’s company.

Second, seek out cues of safety.  To our nervous system, predictability acts as a metaphor for safety.  The stress response we experience as a reaction to uncertainty is our system’s attempt to protect us from imminent danger, to get us to take action and move back to safety.  If we step back and look at it though, most of us are not in imminent danger.  Though there is this overarching uncertainty, most of the moments of our everyday lives are safe.  Thus, if we can make it a practice to seek out the inherent safety of the moment, we can start to override the stress response.  By being present in the body and in this moment, we can start to notice the safety of this granular moment and in this way, we can create space between us and the situation that feels so overwhelming.  To assist you in this practice, I’ve uploaded a meditation focused around finding cues of safety to my website.  I hope you find this practice beneficial. 

Take care of yourself, connect with others, seek out cues of safety, and may you start to uncover more ease in this challenging period. 

I’d love to hear from you! What’s your favourite way to connect with loved ones during social distancing?  Tell me in the comments below.