Cope with Covid through Polyvagal Theory

As we face the second wave of Covid, and enter into a second national lockdown, we can feel anxiety and despondency surfacing once again. As therapists we carry our clients’ reactions to the pandemic alongside our own situation. What we can turn to, though, is the wisdom of Polyvagal Theory which allows us to see how we can cope, self-regulate and support our clients in doing so too.

With its focus on working with our physiological state to access safety, Polyvagal Theory gives us a lens through which we can view both our stress reaction to Covid and lockdown, and also practical routes toward grounding and connection.

In this blogpost we’ve shared some of our thoughts on how this might work alongside Stephen Porges’s insights into what we’re living through which he shared on the Psychologists Off the Clock podcast (do listen to the full episode if you can) and from this video interview.

Maintaining social connection and support

Stephen Porges, creator of the Polyvagal Theory, explains how in times of fear and threat we turn to others for social support to help us regulate. With the isolation of lockdowns, such co-regulation opportunities become limited when we need them the most – but we must find ways to continue connecting. This is one of the most important strategies for coping.

“[The] social engagement system can downregulate our innate reactions to threat, whether the threat is tangible and observable or invisible and imaginable.” Stephen Porges

Living in the time that we do means that we have access to technology that allows us to still connect and communicate. On video calls we can see the other’s face and hear the tone of their voice. When this engagement is warm, we get the cues of social engagement (the heart-face connection) that act as prompts for our body to feel safe and calm down.

Something to be aware of with video calls, though, is that we’re so used to being passively entertained via screens that we really have to work to be present and attuned when making these calls – whether with friends and family, or with clients.

“Polyvagal theory says our goal… is to support those around us that they feel safer.” Stephen Porges

Understanding our response

We know from the first lockdown that a feeling of being on an emotional rollercoaster is to be expected. What polyvagal theory helps with is understanding why some of these feelings are so strong.

The pandemic can trigger our threat response to be stimulated, and being stuck in place through lockdown physical “flight” is not an option (aside from exercise, which can be helpful). So, we may instead turn to the “fight” response. For most of us this doesn’t mean getting physical, but feelings of irritability and anger make sense in this situation.  We are interpreting our body’s fear responses, often misplacing blame on those around us. We can also start to misread cues of social support, seeing those close to us as invasive and needing to be pushed away. With the powerlessness of the situation, we also may experience feeling immobilised and so “flop” into naps and inactivity.

So, if you’re snapping or sleeping the days away – first give yourself some self-compassion: this is an expected, automatic survival response. It is not a reflection on you as a person, and many are feeling and acting in the same way. Then, consider how you might meet your needs and express your feelings in healthy ways.

Self regulation techniques

Having ways to calm our nervous system, that we can access any time, is crucial for maintaining our mental and physical wellbeing. Different things may work for different clients, and that is something to discuss with them.

A core idea though is coming back to the breath, but especially focusing on a longer out-breath. Some clients may find apps like Headspace or Calm useful for a longer meditation practice that incorporates breathwork, but sharing with clients the 5-3-8 breath technique (in for 5, hold for 3, out for 8) gives them something they can return to regularly throughout the day.

Other ideas include:

  • Becoming aware of the body throughout the day  – dropping the shoulders, unclenching the jaw and releasing spots of tension in the body.
  • Movement, in whatever way is possible, can help us move out of feeling cut-off and back into connection with our body and feeling alive. If you’re feeling flat with the “stuckness” of the situation (hypoarousal), walking or something more active like cardio exercise can be helpful to bring you up. If you’re feeling overwhelmed (hyperarousal) then something slower, like yoga or even simple stretching, can help bring you down. Pranayama yoga also activates the social engagement system through facial muscle focus. YouTube has so many videos to help with whatever movement you are craving.
  • Singing helps us focus our breathing (with the extended exhale as with breathwork), decreases cortisol and increases serotonin.
  • Listening to an audiobook or a podcast where the narrator has a soothing, prosodic voice (this is a great one to do while on a walk, or even just while resting).
  • Picturing a source of uncomplicated love – a small child in your life or a pet, and letting yourself feel the warmth that they bring to you. Embracing the smile that comes with their image.

Get more ideas from Deb Dana’s book Polyvagal Exercises for Safety and Connection: 50 Client-Centered Practices.

Self care 101

Going back to basics with self-care can be crucial for keeping us within our window of tolerance. In an already unsettling time, feeling exhausted from staying up late, hungover from drinking too much alcohol or edgy from that fourth cup of coffee is going to heighten stress and anxiety feelings. Staying on top of good sleep, movement, food and hydration routines will help with feeling more grounded.

Stay in the now

If you start to look ahead and imagine the length of time we may be in lockdown, or until things are somewhat normal again, you may notice your heartrate start to quicken, perhaps feelings of nausea – or if you feel a sense of hopelessness, you may start to shutdown. Instead, attempting to stay in the present and taking things day by day as much as possible can help stabilise your nervous system. Again, this is where breathwork and coming back to the body can be helpful.

Limit news and social media

We might think that feeling more informed will give us a sense of control, but this isn’t always the case. Speedily scrolling through social media (“doomscrolling”) and obsessively watching the news is inevitably going to have an impact on us. The stress involved in the pace of our checking, the tone of voice of reports and finding out all the latest statistics can trigger our threat system. We feel more on edge, alert and anxious – perhaps struggling to sleep at night, or – slumping into inactivity and sleepiness in the day.

Limiting how much we access social media and the news can help us regulate our nervous system. Perhaps we move to checking a trusted news site once a day – still getting all the updates we need, while managing our stress and anxiety levels. Organisations like Simple Politics make this easy with their succinct updates on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Equally, if you find yourself getting wound up by Facebook comments on articles or within groups, maybe don’t click the comments. Give your body a break – it will thank you.

Upcoming event

Join us for our online CPD day Polyvagal Theory: Therapeutic Presence and The Relational Space Between Us on Saturday 28th November (with catch-up available for 6 days after).

Learn the basics of the theory in our blogpost An Introduction to Polyvagal Theory, and discover how it may benefit your practice in our blogpost Why Polyvagal Theory is Essential for All Therapists.

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