How Are Our Nervous Systems Responding?
The term “Neuroception” describes how our brains distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening (Porges). This process occurs in a split second and can be thought of as a subconscious process.
What we neurocept as safe, dangerous or life threatening, depends on the way our individual nervous system’s receive and interpret incoming information. Our environments, relationships, ACEs, sensory processing systems and individual neurologies, all play a significant role in our neuroceptions of the world.
In these unprecedented times, our senses would have to be completely shut down, for us not to neurocept the threat of Coronovirus. We have a worldwide stream of information alerting us to its threat; the deaths it is causing in vulnerable groups and the social distancing and lock-downs necessary to protect the collective good. Covid 19 has given rise to a worldwide neuroception of threat and many of our brains and bodies are feeling flooded by its impact.
Our communities are scrambling around for cues of safety, desperately hoping for and needing to find something reassuring to hold onto. Unfortunately, because everyone else around us is also frightened, the safety cues that we are searching for are thin on the ground. Our homes are understandably going to be fraught with anxiety at times and especially as the worrying implications of this disease continue to saturate our lives.
Despite the many great efforts we are all making to communicate calm and soothing sounds, and to find more creative ways of connecting, it is still much more difficult for us all to settle into stillness and safety at this time.
Our towns and cities, our supermarkets, and even our online forums are seeing people’s threat responses being triggered left, right and centre. People have been fighting over metaphorical life jackets and whistles and have literally been stock piling food and loo roll. And whilst our intentions are much more about stockpiling compassion and connection, our threat responses are understandably taking over at times.
Our nervous systems are also reeling from how counter-intuitive it is for us to be trying to make connections from a distance. When we are worried for our friends and family, our nervous systems cannot push aside its patterning. Our brains and bodies have learnt to establish and share safety through face to face interactions. Eye contact and facial gestures provide critical cues to our social engagement systems. We also show and feel safety through safe physical contact, with a loving embrace or the warm touch of a hand.
Despite understanding cognitively that staying home is essential and necessary for the collective good, that whoever we see today will, in all likelihood, effect the intensive care beds in our hospitals in 10 days time, we cannot help but feel that our worlds have been turned upside down. Dr Stephen Porges’s Polyvagal Theory explains how it is a biological necessity for us to connect with others and yet, we are also faced with a very clear and serious reality that we must only do so at a distance, if we are to slow the spread of this disease. Being faced with this surreal need to remain physically distant from each other, is understandably leading many of us to feel lost and unsafe.
These challenging times, require us to find other ways of reaching out, to socially connect, but at a distance. Thankfully we have modern technology to assist us in this. We should not underestimate how powerful video calling is going to be during this time; how reassuring it is to hear the sound of our loved ones voices and to experience the warmth of a compassionate smile.
We are fortunate in the Autistic community to have already established some wonderful online spaces to hang out and it has been great to see these expand and grow over the last few weeks. I have also felt incredibly moved by the number of people sharing their talents online for others to benefit from. People have been playing soothing music, sharing about wildlife, nature and the hopeful early signs of spring, providing online exercise and yoga classes, and we are starting to see a greater emergence of teletherapy.
As human beings, we are incredibly resourceful and we will find ways through this, but we will do so more successfully by maintaining our supportive connections through the technological means that are accessible to us. This time will pass, but whilst we are in it, there are also a number of opportunities before us. One of these and one that I have been thinking about a lot, relates to the understanding around how for many neurodivergent people, this powerful neuroception of threat that we are all currently feeling, is a state that has been and still is, our lifelong experience.
Even without the coronovirus, our demanding world fails to accommodate neurodivergent needs. Many neurodivergent people remain unsupported and find themselves feeling overwhelmed by a neuroception of threat every day. The threat levels that everyone is feeling right now, can often be the norm for this population, for whom the world is a bombarding place filled with overwhelming sensory, social and demand stimuli. This current crisis is not neurology specific, but it does provide a compassionate and empathic window into the lives of the neurodivergent population. For many neurodivergent individuals, the way you have been feeling these last few days and weeks, is how we feel most of the time.
I also want to add that in the same way that it is not disordered for any of us to be experiencing high levels of anxiety through this pandemic, it is also not disordered for Autistic people to feel high levels of anxiety and overwhelm in a world that is relentlessly unforgiving to neurodivergent nervous systems. When we understand the source of people’s responses in context, they become understandable. When we see people’s responses as disorders we identify the problem within the person. The former makes it possible to explore and make changes and adaptations in the environment that can significantly improve a neurodivergent person’s entire wellbeing. The latter invalidates the Neurodivergent person’s whole being.
In the weeks that lie ahead, we all have the opportunity of a slower paced life, with more time to reflect and wonder. Maybe one of the outcomes of this time, might include greater insight into difference, in its many forms.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some of those reflections also led to more meaningful accommodations being made for our neurodivergent children and adults?
I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on the themes raised in this blog here or over on our Facebook Page https://www.facebook.com/ChangingTheNarrativeAboutAutismAndPDA/