Re-couping from the Revving Up and the Shutting Down of a Hard, Hard Year

Re-couping from the Revving Up and the Shutting Down of a Hard, Hard Year

This weekend is the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. On Sunday, June 20, at 8:31pm Pacific Time, the earth will reverse the tilt of its axis and begins its remarkably long journey toward winter.

For many of us, this seasonal turning into official summer issues in warm sunny days, school vacations, and a time to relax and recoup before the “work” of work and school begins again in September.  (And for friends and colleagues in the southern hemisphere, the joyful expectation of warmer weather, longer days as they head toward their summer solstice in December.)

The annual shift from dark to light and light to dark and again dark to light.

There is so much to re-coup from the darkness of the 2021-2021 global pandemic. As the pandemic eases, there is a renewed joy at the prospect of reuniting with family, engaging the fresh outdoors without a mask, returning to working with people in person (in 3-D, as my friend Natalie says).

Yet this solstice carries within it the paradox of opening up access to beautiful places on the planet and each other again, precisely as the days now grow shorter and shorter.  (Approximately two minutes per day). And some of us may experience some reluctance, even some inertia, about re-emerging into the bright light and bright lights of a still messy world.  (My friend Bob said this transition reminds him of groundhog day in early February (still winter): the groundhog peeks its head out of its burrow, sniffs the air and takes a quick look around, says’ “nah, not yet,” and ducks back into its safe, comfy burrow.)

I want to offer some suggestions for re-entry into the larger world again, based on what our nervous systems have been through in the last 16 months.  With full awareness, for people who have lost family and friends to COVID or any other illness when access to medical care was restricted, who still face daily assaults from the realities of racist/classis/sexist oppression and othering, who have migrated from somewhere to somewhere because of hunger, war, environmental disaster, the disasters we have shared in our common humanity may not yet be over.

These recommendations are based on good science and solid experience, and come from two different but complementary models of how to manage our nervous system when it sends us signals of safety-danger-life threat.  (We might still be experiencing signals of all three as we navigate this period of seasonal and societal transition.)

In this post, the traditional model of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) you probably learned in high school biology. In the next post, the new polyvagal developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, a neurophysiologist. 

We’re all familiar with the power of the “fight-flight-freeze” response to any perception of danger, conscious or unconscious.  The cortisol in our system automatically revs us up into action – do something! NOW! to deal with any threat to our survival or well-being. We call this over-activation of the sympathetic branch of the nervous system (SNS) the “stress” response, the reactivity of the body-brain to any external or internal stressor.  (That car almost hit me!  I wonder if that person is going to hit me?)

Fight-flight can sometimes lead to freeze. We need to move to get out of danger but we’re “deer in the headlights,” revving up but frozen.

This over-activation of the SNS is the polar opposite of the deactivating shutdown we experience when our parasympathetic nervous system responds to signals of danger by shutting down all activity, numbing out.  We collapse and hide out rather than engage; we go inert.  (“Play dead so the lion won’t eat you.”)

Both revving up and shutting down are biological responses hardwired in by evolution to help us survive faster than we can even realize we’re in danger of being dead. 

We’ve probably all had more than our share of both revving up and shutting down during this global pandemic. And, realistically, our body-brain will continue to respond to perceived threat or danger from any cause, even once this pandemic is fully over.  Car accidents, police brutality, losing a home or home country may still continue.

The near opposite of the PNS shut down is the positive PNS response of calm and relaxed, ease and contentment. (What we long for as summer officially begins.) We can experience this positive “rest and digest” anytime we take a nap on the beach, enjoy reading a good book, take a nap after making love.

And the near opposite of too much revving up is harnessing the energy and aliveness in our body during times of stress by reaching out to friend, writing a poem or a song, planting a neighborhood garden, organizing volunteers to combat climate change. 

We develop our skills to be-friend our nervous system, to respond to the signals of our nervous system to “Pay attention! Something important is happening here!”  by “Shit happens.  Shift happens, too.”

Kelly McGonigal, health psychologist at Stanford University, suggests in her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You and How to Get Good at It that we can learn to interpret our perception of any stressor (external or internal “shit”) as a cue to shift.  (We do have to become aware of our automatic nervous system responses and our responses to that reactivity in order to shift them.)

We have stress responses throughout the day, and these are not signs of a flaw at all.  Rushing to get your kids ready for school, dealing with a difficulty co-worker, thinking about criticism you received, worrying about a friend’s health – we have stress responses to all of these things because we get stressed when something important is at stake. Choosing to see stress as helpful helps make it so.

– Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It

We can pay attention to the state of our nervous system (eager, anxious, peaceful, pooped out) shaping any of our choices about re-emerging from the pandemic – see a movie in a theater, stay at home cuddled on the couch, get the long-postponed eye exam or teeth cleaning.

I know folks who are booking trips to Hawaii, and that could be a glorious way to both activate good energy and relax at the same time. But consciously choosing how we re-engage with the larger world now doesn’t have to be dramatic. Even doing something again we haven’t done for 16 months – visit a friend in a nursing home now open again for visitors – can get us in gear again, one step at a time.  The re-couping will happen as long as we steadily, incrementally harness the positive states of the nervous system, both energizing and calming, and send our choices of re-entry in a wholesome direction.