In the previous letter I said I would talk today about what happens in the mind and body when we are unable to act in the face of a threat, but, having spent the last hour or so on my social media feed I would like to talk about community, safety and reciprocity instead.
As many of you know we have the biodiversity of a rainforest living inside of us. Our gut microbiome is a jungle of bacteria and parasites that live in our digestive system and is sometimes referred to as “the second brain” in that it directly effects your mood, happiness and motivation: Along with what is called the vagus nerve, the bacteria in your gut are in constant communication with your brain influencing your mood and your behaviour. Some estimates suggest that these same bacteria produce up to 80% of the serotonin responsible for making you feel happy.
I love this fact for two reasons; it inspires a sense of awe and wonderment in me which is my favourite way to take a break from my ego, but also because it brings home the fact that even within our own bodies we are absolutely and fundamentally interdependent on other beings.
Both the vagus nerve and the concept of interdependence are key players in understanding fear and anxiety. Stephen Porges a professor in North Carolina has a theory called the Polyvagal Theory which explains how being kind to each other is as biologically fundamental in times of fear as is the impulse to hoard toilet paper or run.
The Polyvagal Theory invites us to look beyond our fight-or-flight responses and puts social relationships front and centre of our understanding of fear. It explains how when we are under threat we first and foremost react on a social level; calling out for help or looking for support, if that doesn’t work we then engage on a more primitive level; the fight or flight responses, and if neither of those work then we freeze or collapse. (Notice the parallels to how our mental health deteriorates).
The Poly-vagal theory is named as such because of the many branches of the vagus nerve which connects numerous organs within the body including the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. The theory explains how a kind face or a soothing comment can act upon the vagus nerve and make us feel calm and safe and why being ignored can be so damaging for our mental and physical health.
What does this mean? It means that our best anxiety management tools are each-other. We are biologically programmed to deal with stress and anxiety by being kind to one another. A nice email or a kind smile will reduce someone else’s anxiety levels faster than they are often able to alone.
Our brains are designed specifically to function as members of a tribe and we are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves: Just listening to music at home is participating in something we have created as a community. Just take this pandemic as evidence: what effects a few effects us all. We are barely singular beings whichever way you cut it but, for sure, the parts of us that are communal such as language, art and story telling and relationship are the best things about us.
The importance of social support today can’t be stressed enough. Social support is not just being in the presence of others; it is at its core about reciprocity. Being heard and seen by the people around you, feeling that we are held in someone’s mind and heart and being that person for others. Humans wound us but humans also heal us and isolating oneself into a narrow group of victims only serves to further worsen our pain. Not to mention that when we isolate in this way it promotes the feeling that others are irrelevant at best and dangerous at worst and this kind of thinking is behind human behaviour at its ugliest.
Not all of us were blessed to come into the world already gifted with a tribe of people who see, love and support us but it is worth trying to get to a place where you can create that reality for yourself in the future. It takes support and time but in the words of the poet Rumi:
Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”
So what about taking on the task of asking yourself the following three questions:
In which ways can we be kind today? How can we connect with others known and unknown in this time of heightened anxiety? How can I reach beyond myself and be of service to other people?
Try it. I bet you this will make us feel better than any of other relaxation tips I could have given you.