The CORONA fear – is it really fear?

Is our obsession about corona just fear or paranoia, or is it a part of a well functioning survival response? If it is a biological call for survival, how can we then keep our self healthy and the level of stress low by completing our orientation response?

ABSTACT: I argue that our need for information about the corona virus is subconscious action from our ANS and a part of our Survival Response Cycle familiar to professionals trained in Somatic Experiencing. I also shed light on how this can impact how mind and body, and I argue why it might be essential to take breaks from the information stream, and to restore equilibrium in the preparatory orienting response. Also I suggest how we can help trauma survivors and people with severe stress better in the current situation with corona. 

NOTE: This blog is in English. I normally write in Danish, and will eventually translate this one to Danish as well.

I am reading a lot of sentences these days about “Stop fearing” “How to manage you fear” “Overcome your fear” ”Keep calm …” etc. It made me think. Cause I feel no fear, though I have taken a lot of protective measures also before the government made restrictions. Actually my first feeling was that I was back at working as a nurse. Washing or disinfecting my hands, thinking of what I have touch and thinking more on bacteria than normal. But I never had fear as a nurse, even in severe situation with patients in isolation, some with potential dangerous sicknesses or bacteria, some with very low or no functioning immunsystem. Why was I not fearfull? Because it was my job, and I and my colleges knew what to do. We oriented us about the patient, went to the office, took the red, blue or green paper (later on the intranet) and read what protective measures we should use. There was no fear, but yes, there was an extra alertness. Which helped me to remember to do all the actions in the right order. 

And now I also have no fear, but the extra alertness. But something is different. I can’t go to the office and pull out the red, blue or green paper, because the paper is constantly changing. One day I should “only” wash my hands, the next day the schools are closing, next day a new law against gathering in groups. So, like most other people around the world, I spend an awful lot of time on orienting. And that made me recall my Somatic Experiencing training, as the word ORIENTING got a bell ringing. 

Those familiar with the training in Somatic Experiencing know that the Survival Response Cycle has different stages: 

  • Arrest response / Preparatory orienting  
  • Startle response
  • Defensive orienting response
  • Specific defense:
    • Flight
    • Fight
    • Freeze
  • Completion
  • Exploratory orienting response

Our Survival Response Cycle starts when ever our autonomic nervous system (ANS) perceive a potential threat. A threat could be just small changes in out environment (Remember how the animals were fleeing from the tsunami i Thailand long before the wave hit land?). So our ANS is build to detect even the smallest changes, so let’s say we havn’t read any news, then our ANS will start the Survival Response Cycle (SRC) when we notice significant less people on the street, people keeping more distance or waring masks. And if we keep up, just a little bit, with the news, the SRC will start even before. 

So what is the first stage? It is a form of arrest or novelty, which immediately will lead to a Preparatory Orienting Response. It is a response from our “reptilian brain” and it will make us stop, our body will at some level crouch, especially our neck, we will feel an instant alertness and readiness to search for information. From here neck, eyes and ears will stretch out to gather information and the subconsciousness will “ask” the questions like: Where is it? What is it? What is the relationship to me? How much time do I have? Is it moving quickly; do I need to react? We are scanning the environment and are ready to make immediate movement. 

So that could happen relatively quick. Something rattles against my window a dark night. I will have an arrest response, maybe hold my breath, and without thinking orient myself. Maybe remember that it is a stormy night, and the tree is standing relatively close to the window. I might check it, and soon I will be back at my activity, though I would feel my heart is pumping, but soon my breath will normalize. 

But it is not so easy and fast with out current situation with corona. It is like our Preparatory Orienting Response is never coming to an end, especially in these times with constant access to media around the world. All the time there are something new. In the old days we would rush to the street in the morning, being ready for the newspaper, or we would gather around the radio in the morning and in the evening, to catch up. Now we can’t finish catching up. 

So we could look at it as if we are in a constant Preparatory Orienting Response, where not only our brain is working hard to gather information, but our whole body are participating in this response. E.g. I do feel a lot of tension in my shoulders and neck at these days. What about you? What do you feel in your body? 

We should understand that the Preparatory Orienting Response is the first step in the SRC, and therefore it implies a stress activation. People working with traumaheling understand that to restore the body from stress or trauma, you need to deactivate the stress activation. The Preparatory Orienting Response is not a big activation, but in relation to the current situation it might be a very long or never ending activation, which over time will have a big impact on our nervous and endocrine systems, not to forget muscles, other tissue and brain. 

The Preparatory Orienting Response will under normal situations be followed by a dischage of the arrest response, which will lead to a more relaxed state. We would normally experience a small vibration in the muscle system which will lead to a relaxed feeling, maybe a deep sigh/long exhale, a yawning, sweating, movement or other changes in you bodily posture. Our attention will shift from a very focused orientation to a more broad and relaxed being in connection to our surroundings. 

If the Preparatory Orienting Response is ongoing there is no or only very little discharge. The stress level will rise and we will feel a constant alertness. Is that fear? No, not necessarily. The alertness might help us to remember to keep a healthy distance to people and to wash our hands etc. But too much alertness could easily be too much. Especially if we already carry stress or trauma in our brain and body. 

But to talk against that alleged “fear” or alertness could also limit our healthy and biological Preparatory Orienting Response, and inhibit a normal chance for discharge. Let’s call it what it is; A biological need for orientation, so we can feel safe. 

So what can we do to help ourself and our clients? E.g. I find it very hard to stop searching information about corona, and found myself listening to today’s press conference on the speaker just befor going to bed. So unlike me. But on the other hand, my whole bodily system is reacting and searching for information. Maybe I could give myself some timeslots to search information? Maybe noon and evening? 

So normalising the need to orient / gather information might help both ourself and our clients. It could also help to structure what kind of information we need. What questions normally show up is: What do I need to do to stay healthy? What repercussions are the current right now? (E.g. are schools closing, are the shops closing? etc.) What do I do if I or my loved ones feel sick? What are the signs of COVID-19? 

It might help to write down these questions, so you can assure yourself that you have now found the informations needed. That would especially apply for traume survivors or people dealing with severe or traumatic stress, while we know that the cognitive functions are not working normally and information is hard to structure. Some of these people might not even manage to read or listen to the news, and the situation becomes threatening. You could also say that the Preparatory Orienting Response is then interrupted and then you will see signs of being stuck in orienting disturbances which are hyper-vigilance, avoidance or extinguished orienting. In these cases we might help the need for orientation by suggesting to find it through relatives. E.g. you could have one daily phone call to a friend or a relative and get newest updates about the corona situation. 

When you are done gathering information, lets say you use half an hour 1 – 2 times pr day,  you would then need to refrain from information search and indulge in activities that would give a discharge. To restore equilibrium in the preparatory orienting might imply activities that allow you to to feel that you have plenty of time and feel safe. Also paying attention to intentional preparatory movements would help. You would have to “look” /sense the small “pre-movements” instead of jumping to big gross motor movements. Give the body a change to reorganize. Listen to the impulses from your body. Move the eyes slowly, look around in the room, which also would un-fixate your eyes from the screen. Titration (which is a known component in working with trauma) is already applied by structuring and limiting you information flow. Orienting in the here and now. Feeling the surface underneath you, and moving the neck, would also be very beneficial. And what we have learned from Stephen Porges and The Polyvagal Theory, to activate the social engagement system. Smile, talk, laugh, look at faces. Maybe do a video call if you are alone or just need another smiling face. If you do your information gathering via a call to a friend or relative, you could do it via a video call, that would be very beneficial. Watch a comedy or just give yourself a smile in the mirror. 

So what about the fear. Is it not there? Yes for some it is there, and that might be an interpretation in our nervous system from an interrupted Preparatory Orienting Response. E.g. for children it is very difficult to orient in the current situation with corona, and naturally they feel fear. But I think, by understanding, normalize and support our need for orientation might limit the first spike of fear. It is totally normal to read a lot about corona right now, and you are not paranoid by doing so. But the circumstances that we have a very hard time finishing that biological response, for some it might lead to very elevated states of stress, that could express it self as fear. By “completing” your orienting response, you make ground for a discharge and a feeling of restores balance. But we might, and still should have a minor state of alertness so we remember to keep the right actions, but that alertness would maybe be more tolerable, when the orientation can feel completed. 

References:

Claesson, Bodil (2014), Pigen der hoppede ud af sin krop.

Levine, P.A. (2010), In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness.

The training manual from the Somatic Experiencing© education.

Van der Kolk , B. (2014) ,The body keeps the score : Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.