COVID-19: Our Brains, Our Bodies, Our Trauma. Part 3.

Part 3: Stay Connected

I am 7.5 months into the wild ride that is pandemic pregnancy. At my most recent OB appointment, my doc sent me home with a loaned blood pressure cuff and a fetal Doppler machine. Out of COVID-19 precaution, my next several appointments will be held over the phone; I will monitor my own blood pressure and use the hand-held ultrasound device to monitor baby’s heartbeat.

If you’re reading this and have ever carried a baby or been close with someone who has, you can perhaps imagine just how distracting it is to have constant access to a fetal heartbeat monitor.

So, yes. I tune into baby’s environment fairly often (that may or may not be an understatement) and what I am struck by is the rhythm within which she is living. The sound of her heartbeat, the sound of mine, and the sound of the fluid around her. Even when I am still, her world is full of rhythm. When I engage in self-regulation — yoga, song, walking — the flow and cadence becomes stronger. It is kind of an incredible thing.

We’ve explored rhythm and its role in self-regulation. Here we will explore it as it applies to relational regulation: the missing piece we need to soothe our activated stress responses (head over to Part 1 if you’re clueless as to what that means) and get our brains back on track.

First, breathe in — notice the pause at the top of the in-breath — then breathe out. Notice the pause before the next breath begins. Consider the stillness that lies in those pauses.

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, creator of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), our brains hold powerful associations between rhythm, relational presence, and regulation that begin in utero. The baby I’ve been eavesdropping on is coming to associate rhythm with safety. Once she is born, when she encounters stress in the form of an unmet need (hunger, thirst, a wet diaper), ideally a regulated caregiver — to be clear, this caregiver does not have to be me; biologically, others in our community of carers have this same ability— comes to meet the need and does so with warmth and rhythm. You’ve probably seen or experienced this. Caregivers may rub babies’ backs, bounce them, walk with them, or sing to them. The more this happens, the stronger the associations between rhythm, safety, and people become; the more we prefer to be in the company of our people. A detailed explanation of the way our neurobiology is woven together with our relationships can be found in this article. To put it simply, we are wired for connection and community from birth.

”The most powerful buffer in times of stress and distress is our social connectedness; so let’s all remember to stay physically distant but emotionally close.” -Dr. Bruce Perry

A profoundly effective way to shut off our brain’s stress alarm is to see, hear, or be in the presence of our people — those who nurture us, who love us, who respect us, and who care for us. People with whom we feel seen and valued. I think of these people in my own life as my North Star people. My husband, who I have been known to refer to as my “human Xanax,” is a North Star person for me. His voice alone is sometimes enough to regulate me. Maybe your North Star people are relatives, maybe they’re not. Maybe, pre-COVID you were able to be with them often, maybe not. Now, more than ever, you need them. If we are to make it through the current trauma, and ultimately heal from it, we need to turn toward each other.

Let’s pause for another breath break. This time, as you breathe in, imagine the face or the voice of one of your North Star people. Notice what happens in your body as you conjure this image.

In Part 2 of this series, we talked about self-regulation and the way small amounts of patterned, repetitive, rhythmic experiences can help to soothe us and give us access to the “thinking” parts of our brains. It is actually even more soothing and more regulating to engage in these experiences alongside your people. Cooking together, exercising together, dancing together, playing games together. The current crisis has resulted in the need for physical distancing, in an open-ended and ongoing way, which can make a lot of this feel really hard. Many of us feel isolated, alienated, or alone. We aren’t able to be with our people, or be in the places and spaces where we feel most supported.

The answer, for now, lies in utilizing technology to the degree that we are able to stay socially and emotionally connected. Make a list of your North Star people, even those you may have been out of contact with for a while. How often are you checking in with them? Can you send them a message? Schedule a video chat? Spontaneously start a video chat? I used to be notorious for not answering unannounced FaceTime calls; that fussiness has recently gone out the window. I will answer now. And you should, too.

Community can happen virtually, and in powerful ways. You may have seen musicians streaming live concerts. DJ D Nice’s Club Quarantine held on Instagram Live has led to 100,000+ viewers at a time singing and dancing in their respective homes across the world. Museums and zoos and other institutions are offering virtual tours. Yoga classes are being held live to allow folks to practice in their homes. There are apps available that allow you to play digitized versions of board games with other people.

There are ways, many ways, to virtually be “with” our people, engaging in activities that bring us joy. These times call for innovation and intentionality in terms of connection and community. But if you build it, your people might just come.

In the final piece of this series, we will consider how we ‘catch’ anxiety and stress from one another, both directly and indirectly, and why this means we need to mindfully consume media. In the meantime, take care of yourself and reach out to your people.

Continue reading:

Part 4. Stop Scrolling (Available here)

About the Author

Dr. Jennifer A. King is the Assistant Director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity and an Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

Mother. Social Work Educator. Therapist. Trauma-Informed.

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