Covid cases rising. Check your nervous system.

This past week, it has felt like everyone I know knows someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. Suddenly, this abstraction that was mostly making headlines elsewhere (and sometimes made me feel that my bubble-time was an overreaction), has gotten very real. There are exposure warnings issued for a host of Whistler bars – Buffalo Bills (Jan 4 -27), Black’s (Jan 5 – 27), Dubh Linh Gate (Jan 1 -27), The Longhorn (Jan 16-25), Hy’s (Jan 13, 15, 15), El Furniture Warehouse (Jan 12, Jan 14-21), The Amsterdam Cafe/Pub (Jan 11-17, 19, 21,23, 24, 25)). The Ecole de la Vallee is closed for 2 weeks with “all staff and students from all grades who attended school on [Jan.] 25, 26 2021 to self-isolate at home for 14 days from the date of exposure.” Someone in the Signal Hill community has tested positive. The Pemberton and District Community Centre is closing from today until February 7, and will apply credits and pass extensions for those whose programs have been cancelled. And, if you’re anything like me, you’re anxious to hear how the case load for Howe Sound has changed from the week of Jan 18-23 to the week of Jan 25 – 30, as if the numbers are tea leaves and we could read something of the future in them.

Village of Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman shared the following, via Facebook on, Saturday:

Here it is. Just when we thought our COVID outlook was getting better, we are watching it come closer to home… let’s be aware of our language and acknowledge our sadness and fear. People are scared. When people are scared, there can be a tendency to shame and blame. Although this puts distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ it can lead to increased isolation and risk as people feel they have to hide. I am hopeful that as a community we can be aware of this and work hard to express compassion and solutions rather than blame and shame. On one hand we are seeing an increase of local cases. On the other hand we are starting to see light at the end of the tunnel through vaccination. On one hand we are tired, very tired. On the other hand we have community, space and thoughts of spring in the not-so-distant future. It is important to spend time acknowledging all of this. There has been an increase in cases and we’ve seen up close how small, supportive communities can suppress transmission effectively as our neighbours at Líl̓wat Nation have done so well. We are in constant contact with Vancouver Coastal Health and our local doctors and while I know people are anxious for more information regarding case numbers, these are not figures that are provided to the Village. The message is the same and it’s more important now than ever: keep your bubble tight, mask up and stay home. We are all so tired. It’s ok to be fed up but we must carry on. And we will. All of us, together. Mike.

I saw someone post on a Facebook forum, “everyone is so afraid, it’s just not healthy”, and I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve learned a little bit about the nervous system over the past year, and anxiety and fear are actually quite healthy responses to a hazard, especially an uncertain one. Our brains are always scanning the world for hazards. This particular hazard – COVID-19 – is just a lot harder to see coming than a sabre tooth tiger. So we can never really know if our physical responses are legitimate or an over-reaction. It’s easy to spin around and around in circles then. And point a lot of fingers at everyone else as we try and gauge if we’re responding correctly. And that doesn’t get us anywhere but dizzy. (And outraged. Or perplexed. But not usually a better state of mind.)

I wonder if it’s helpful for us to be able to identify our “nervous system” style, the way it is helpful to know your learning style. (I’m a feeler. My partner is visual. Kiddo, I think, might be a listener… I’m still observing on that front.) My nervous system is wired to freeze when I’m stressed. I check out, I look for distraction, I try and get very small and hope the hazard passes me by. That is probably why my response to COVID-19 has been to stay at home a lot. My partner tends more to fight over flight or freeze. So he’s the one going out into the world, and reporting how riled up he gets when he sees people walking around the grocery store against the arrows, or coming in as a party of four.

These are all acceptable responses. Not good. Not bad. Just how things are.

Some people will want to wear double masks; some people will want to wear none and run around the streets yelling “it’s all overblown.” Some people are driving to Florida to live in the sun in a gated community and pretend none of this is happening. These are not rational responses, in that they’re not generated by our executive brain function: they’re our lizard brain telling us we need to do something, we need to do something about this perceived threat, and acting on that.

There’s a ton of interesting science about how our attachment to our parents and our childhood development impacted the development of our nervous systems and our responses now (not to mention human history since the Paleolithic era) (listen to this 2 part podcast if it’s of interest to you: https://accidentalgods.life/sarah-schlote/) – but I think the most important thing is to acknowledge – this is a stress response. And that makes sense. It makes sense to be having a stress response. Other people’s stress responses might not make sense to you. I, for one, don’t understand the logic of carrying your COVID virus to Whistler to self-isolate while skiing… for example… BUT, I can see that this is a stress response.

Also, it should be said, I have no qualifications whatsoever to be speaking about this…

It’s helpful, despite my lack of qualifications, to be able to see behaviour that makes me feel testy and say, oh, that is a stress response. Or to observe that I didn’t sleep that well after the school emailed about a case, and that I didn’t really want to leave the house or send my kid to school, and could have happily played in the closet with him making forts… oh, that is my stress response. Okay. Sure. It is stressful. Good to know the nervous system is still online.

BUT I want to answer the great challenge that I think COVID-19 is presenting to humanity… to shift our thinking from ME to WE… to move out of the peak selfishness that is capitalism 2020 and towards a greater sense of collective good. It’s what we’re going to need if we’re going to have any shot at addressing the climate crisis. It strikes me as being the core tension at play over the past year – do I think about my own personal needs, or the collective good? And to what degree?

To lean more towards the collective good, I need to keep cultivating my compassion towards people who are behaving in a way that makes no sense to me. And this lens of “nervous system response” feels the most generative. I’m like: oh, that’s their wiring at work. I see. I guess yelling at them won’t help. How can I help coax this person towards a greater sense of calm, and kindness, so they can make better decisions and get through this…

The single best tool I’ve read about, to help manage that fluttery-heart feeling of anxiety rising, is a self-kindness practice, to put yourself back in your body. Put your hand on your chest. And breathe.

That’s how I’ll be posing, when I log on to the public health briefing this afternoon.

Hand on my heart. Breathe.

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