Human beings are literally born to be adapted. Unfortunately, we are also born to be vulnerable — and it is impossible to have one without the other.
If you measure the time between conception and taking their first step, there is almost no difference between a human infant and an elephant calf (on average, 21 months for the human and 22 for the elephant). However, the elephant calf will spend all 22 of those months in the safety and isolation of a womb, while the human baby will spend those last 12 months as a helpless and dependent being in the outside world.
Emerging out of the womb only “half-baked,” so to speak, affords us the opportunity to be soft and porous enough to fully soak up our social and cultural surroundings. In this way, vulnerability maximizes our capacity for complex social interaction, communication, and abstract reasoning–all of which enable us to flourish in diverse environments.
The obvious catch is that we do not always experience our vulnerability as an evolutionary advantage. To the contrary, we are equally born to overcome our vulnerability. In those first few years we carefully study our environment, mirror behaviors, and do pretty much everything we can to gain a sense of control, safety, independence, and belonging.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, this mastery is temporary and fleeting — the world does not stop throwing us new challenges. After infancy, adapting to a major transition means not only learning about our new surroundings, but unlearning the habits, routines, preferences, and expectations that suited our previous environment.
For major transitions — such as the death of a loved one or, more to the point, a global pandemic — we may feel so vulnerable that we will experience it less as a transition and more as a “rebirth” of sorts.
Roughly 16 months ago, we were suddenly and dramatically reborn into a terrifying new reality: one filled with uncertainty, fear, illness, death, and isolation. As humans do, we sought to regain a sense of safety and control by radically adjusting our routines, habits, and expectations. Almost overnight we began re-coding the world around us: objects, people, and places previously associated with joy and safety — such as friends, family, sporting events, parks, schools, restaurants, movie theatres — were now coded as “unsafe.”
Now, as we begin to glimpse the possibility of a post-pandemic life, or hear more talk about returning to “normal,” many feel a renewed sense of anxiety and trepidation. It is becoming more and more apparent that, for many, this does not feel like a simple “return to normal” but yet another “rebirth”.
This makes perfect sense. Given the nature of the pandemic, it is almost as if we had to unlearn all of those lessons of our infant years. Now, we could only guarantee our safety through isolation and closing ourselves off from the outside world — almost as if we had to climb back into a womb of sorts (I guess we finally got that extra 12 months of womb-maturation…that nobody was asking for).
16 months is a long time, and, like all transitions, it will take time before we feel comfortable in our new surroundings. Post-pandemic life is not the same as pre-pandemic life — even if the world looks the same as it did before, we have changed.
Like all transitions, there are things you can do help:
- To the degree that it makes sense, accept your vulnerability
Vulnerability is an essential part of our humanity. While it can cause us to feel unsafe, anxious, and in distress, it also enables us to remain open to the world, and gives us the ability to learn, grow and adapt.
This does not, of course, mean justifying, accepting, or even inviting pain. It simply means that we have no choice but to feel some amount of vulnerability in times of transition. If we can accept this fact, it can even help soothe our distress (as people in the mindfulness world say, acceptance alleviates suffering by reducing it to pain).
- Try not to pathologize yourself (or others)
If you are reading this you have survived the first global pandemic of its kind in the history of humanity.
Most people feel large amounts of stress and anxiety when they attend their first day of high school, have to give a public talk, or start a new job. Whatever you are feeling, it is likely to be expected given the gravity of the situation.
While this may feel uncomfortable, you do not need the extra burden of believing that there is something deeply wrong with you (see point #1). You are likely doing the best you can to cope in a very difficult situation.
The problem is in the environment, not deep inside of you (or anyone else).
(2b. Seek help when needed)
It also goes without saying, if you are struggling to cope with daily activities, please seek out appropriate help. We do not need to pathologize pain, but it also does not need to be normalized or embraced. If you are feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, speak to your doctor or a mental health professional.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever you are feeling.
Emotions are a crucial part of how we make predictions about the world. If our emotions feel “big,” confused, or contradictory, that is because they have been taking in a lot of “big,” confusing, and contradictory information over the past 18 months.
Free yourself from the pressure of having to feel a certain way (see point #1). Observing and putting a vocabulary to your feelings, sensations, and emotions can help you process and make sense of your emotions.
- Curiosity is your best friend
Anxiety and curiosity are two distinct modes in which humans acquire information. Think back to the extremes of the one year old child: they are constantly touching, licking, biting, and throwing everything around them. One way to understand this is that they are running millions of small experiments, coding their environment as either safe/desirable or unsafe/undesirable.
When the environment is coded safe, children display insatiable curiosity and desire to learn and explore. When something unexpected happens (a stranger enters the room, a toy makes a loud sound, etc.), their sympathetic nervous system is triggered and the child rapidly interprets their environment, searching for immediate clues of safety and danger–typically leading them to run crying to their caregiver arms outstretched.
Both curiosity and “fight, flight, or freeze” responses implore us to seek information, the difference is, the former is exploratory in nature, while the latter is constrictive, concerned only with the quickest route to safety.
If, for example, you are suddenly confronted by a grizzly bear on a beautiful hike in the mountains, your brain would immediately drop its attentiveness to the bright green moss and crashing sound of the approaching waterfall. The world would no longer appear as an array of pleasant sensations, but as a crude map in which every object is marked as either an obstacle or means of escape.
This is the world many of us have been living in for the past 16 months.
While toddlers have little control over their emotional disposition, we can gradually learn to intentionally foster an attitude of curiosity in appropriate situations (i.e. not when confronting a grizzly). Engaging our curiosity will not only help calm our nervous system, but will free up our “higher” cognitive functions, which can help us better take in, discern, and categorize new information. This will not only lower our anxiety, but help us make better decisions about how we want to adapt to the world around us (or, alternatively, how we want the world to adapt to us).
- Breathing (cliche, I know, but it works)
To discuss breathing exercises in a mental health forum might feel cliche at this point. But, in the same way curiosity can help soothe anxiety, breathing is still one of the most effective ways to regulate our sympathetic nervous system.
When a stimulus is coded as “danger,” our body will release adrenaline, which causes our heart to beat faster and our breathing to become more rapid–if the threat persists, we will release cortisol to prolong this reaction.
We do not have direct control over our sympathetic nervous system, but with controlled breathing we can intervene and reverse this process. By taking slow deep breaths, we regulate our heart rate, which, in turn, sends a signal to our nervous system that we are safe and capable of taking care of ourselves without the extra shots of adrenaline and cortisol.
While a good hormone boost is great when being chased by a grizzly, it is probably less necessary for enduring a ride on the subway for the first time in a year and a half.
- Do not let shame further isolate you
Feeling and naming emotions is not the same as acting upon them.
Many “secondary” emotions (that is, our feelings about our feelings) tell us we should feel guilty, embarrassed, or ashamed about being anxious and stressed about returning to “normal.” It is common to feel shame in response to such struggles–for better or worse, it is a way many of us learn to cope. While shame is often invoked as a protective response to feeling overly vulnerable (hence the instinct to hide, disappear, etc.), if left unchecked, it can leave us further isolated.
Observe and name your shame, remain curious about how and when it shows up, the ways in which it might be trying to protect you, but do not let it sit in the driver’s seat. (see point #7)
- It’s ok to take it slow
Now that you have a handle on your emotions, reactions, and communication, try translating this into a plan. Set goals and boundaries that feel realistic and manageable.
Boundaries are notoriously difficult to set. This is because you are not just setting a boundary with others, but with yourself.
Remember to check in with yourself, remind yourself that it is ok if you struggle or disappoint others. Challenge yourself, while giving yourself permission to go as slow as needed.
- Use these skills to co-regulate with others
While all of these skills can help you navigate the new reality, there is no substitute for community.
Social support consistently ranks amongst the most important indicators for successful coping, resilience, and overall health. From birth, our nervous systems learn to regulate themselves in concert with those around us. Regardless of how old or independent we become, co-regulation is still essential to our feeling of safety, well-being, and belonging.
One of the most overlooked issues stemming from the pandemic is that social anxiety (something many of us already struggle with) became a successful coping strategy for our overall health and survival, as our poor confused nervous systems were “forced” by our circumstances to code even our closest friends and family as “unsafe” (let alone a stranger on a subway).
Re-coding the world as “safe” is not always simple, quick, or easy–hence the need for treatment in cases of trauma and phobias.
This will take time.
So, cut yourself some slack; observe, feel and name your emotions; foster a sense of curiosity about the world around you; breath slow and deep to regulate your nervous system; establish comfortable boundaries; and put all of these skills in service of gradually connecting with the outside world.
Start slow, start with those whom you love, check in with yourself, and go from there.
– Robert Froese, MSW, RSW