Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Over the past few months, have you heard or thought these things;
'Why can't they just get over it?'
'It's time to let by-gones be by-gones'
'Let's all just try to get along and find some peace over the holidays.'
Are you still experiencing post-pandemic awkwardness, conflict or avoidance in some of your relationships? The cognitive dissonance and differing points of view over the past 2.5 years has created a lasting void between some people. Maybe one of you followed the rules while the other, seeing the mandates as more dangerous, outrightly refused. Early on, you may have engaged in rational debates or had heated discussions. Perhaps you sat back and observed others' actions, trying to hold space for both sides and grew weary. Perhaps you sat in judgement, with one eyebrow raised and lips pursed. Perhaps, over time, your capacity for dialogue diminished, and you shut it down. Unfollow, unfriend or scroll on by to reduce the triggers. And now that things have relatively settled down, you might be sensing a chasm where there once was connection. Conversations are superficial and tense, no one naming the gian elephant in the room. How do we shift back towards safety and connection with one another? And do we even want to?
This article is my opinion on the felt sense of safety in relationships as it relates to our post-COVID-19 world. Important notes before reading any further:
Let me take a moment to acknowledge my bias right of the hop. I have been vocal with regards to the coercion, segregation, objectification and hate speech that governments, employers, and fellow citizens have subjected people to.
I believe in bodily sovereingty and a person's right to choose or decline medical procedures for themselves and their families based on risk-benefit analysis and full informed consent.
I'm not a counsellor. I'm someone with first hand experience with this topic, having experienced many relationship ruptures as a result of voicing my opinions. I work with a diverse group of clients, so I hear a lot of personal stories.
I've edited this blog alot over several weeks and it has helped me reflect and process some of my own experiences and mis-steps.
I sincerely hope that this blog adds to the broader understanding of why many people are struggling to reconnect after rupture in relationships.
It is not my intention to shame or blame anyone for their reactions or choices.
Thanks for being receptive enough to read and hear my point of view.
Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 2.5 years, you know that our judgements about others' reactions to COVID-19 mandates did a number on some of our primary relationships, including family, close friends, and colleagues. I don't know anyone who is unscathed. I don't know anyone who has not experienced some sort of rupture at worst, or deterioration at best, of at least one (if not many) relationships since March, 2020.
And here's the kicker. We are relational beings.
A key ingredient of our health and well-being is a sense of safety in relationships. A newborn wouldn't make it without a caregiver. A person with a broken arm needs someone to help them prepare a meal. With no one to celebrate the highs and no shoulders to lean on during the lows, life would be pretty empty, and even despairing. We need other people to show up in safe ways, not only to thrive, but to survive. As human beings, we are hard-wired for connection and belonging.
A bit of science about the felt sense of safety; Our autonomic nervous system plays a significant role in our health and well-being. According to NIH's National Library of Medicine, 'The autonomic nervous system is a component of the peripheral nervous system that regulates involuntary physiologic processes including heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, digestion, and sexual arousal.' Simply put, it keeps us alive, allows for our species to carry on, and it's automatic. Fast moving car coming at you? Your body leaps out of the way. Walking alone on a dark street as a stranger approaches? Your heart beats faster and your muscles tense as you prepare to fight or flee. Arrive home to your loving family after your stressful day and notice how your body softens and sighs as you connect and settle into your familiar surroundings. It is in this state that you are able to rest, digest, and restore. It is in this state of connection that you're able to access presence, curiosity, compassion, empathy and connection.
Before our thinking mind can even engage, our body has already made decisions that 'all is well' or is 'sounding the alarm'.
Let's talk about neuroception (just a wee more science). In simple terms, neuroception is how we take in information about the internal state of our bodies and from our surroundings through our senses. This information, plus data stored from our past experiences, create an automatic response in us based on wether the situation or person is perceived as safe or dangerous. Without any input from our rational thinking brain, our body has already decided. For example, when we enter a grocery store, we are taking in facial expressions, postures, scents, and sounds. Often, we are greeted by a smiling clerk stocking the produce area, along with the fresh scents of fruits and veggies. We may see other shoppers calmly going about their business. For most, a sense of safety is felt and we're likely to socially engage through eye contact with other shoppers, and possibly even friendly conversation with the check-out clerks. Alternately, if something is 'off' to us (i.e. we see panicked faces, or hear a loud noise) we may automatically tense up, stop in our tracks and forget what we even came in for. Like an alarm system, our autonomic nervous system constantly scans for signs of safety and danger via our neuroception.
Remember that trauma and chronic stress can wreak havoc with our neuroception. The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders states, 'In general, trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.' and, 'Everyone processes a traumatic event differently because we all face them through the lens of prior experiences in our lives'. It's important to note that the 'internal alarm systems' for people who have experienced trauma and/or chronic stress, are often more sensitized as a protection mechanism.
There is safety in belonging and it can feel risky, even life-threatening, to go against the crowd.
This is just how we are wired. Imagine back into pre-modern times, long before unemployment insurance, home care, and 911 existed. If you were cast out of the clan, tribe or family, it meant very hard times for you, even death. Who would care for you or feed you if you were injured or sick? Who would have your back?
Because our nervous systems have not evolved as fast as our social structures, belonging is still essential to our innate sense of safety.
Circumstances sometimes require us to trade our authenticity for safety and belonging.
During COVID lockdowns and mandates, while some people strictly followed pulic health orders because they truly believed it was the right thing to do, a fair number of people told me they disagreed but followed them under duress: to stay safe from scrutiny or punishment. Same for vaccines. I had numerous friends and family tell me they didn't want to get it at all and were pretty sure it was of no benefit, but were coerced (thier words) due to social expectations, work mandates and sadly, because they just wanted to attend thier kids' hockey game. Think about the social pressure that teenagers were faced with.
For many, the experiences over the past 2.5 years have been a source of trauma.
And many people are still experiencing the symptoms of dysregulation: health anxiety, insomnia, less resiliency and capacity for stress, physical tension, digestive problems, getting stuck in anger or depression. Suicides, self harm, addictions, domestic violence, and eating disorders became major concerns for families during lockdowns. Based on what we know about nervous system dyregulation and the connections to chronic health conditions, the long-term health implications from this collective trauma will absolutely be seen for decades to come.
"If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships." - Fanklin D. Roosevelt
Navigating relationships this past year remains tricky for many, and is still messing with our sense of safety. In Canada, adults, seniors and adolescents who chose not to follow mandates experienced horrendous segregation from society. I personally know numerous people who had these things happen to them (and this is a short list);
People across all sectors, including health care, education and essential transportation services, lost jobs or were put on upaid leaves, losing the ability to provide for their families and their purpose.
People of all ages, race and religions were excluded from recreation, family gatherings and church services (including thier ministerial roles).
These same people were the target of hate speech by our political leaders and by other community members, while CTV and CBC conducted surveys to see if the public agreed that they should lose the right to medical care and buying groceries (yes, these things really happened in Canada).
Scientists and health care professionals and protest organizers who were brave enough to publicly speak out received death threats to themselves and their families, were censored, defamed, deplatformed, fined and arrested.
People lost fundamental human rights to earn a living, travel and attend peaceful protests.
Students withdrew from College and University because of mandates announced after tuition was paid, 1 week prior to start dates.
Teens surrendered their jerseys along with their competitive sports dreams (I personally know a young person who lost all their hair from the stress).
Single mother's were forced to take experimental medical treatments against their health values, risking known side effects, in order to keep food on the table and the mortgage paid.
Women are still feeling stuck in unhealthy and dangerous relationships due to job losses.
There are Indigenous people (as shared with me) that feel re-colonized by the goverment's actions and mandates.
Is it any wonder these folks are struggling to find a sense of safety in our communities, schools, and workplaces? 'Just get over it' and 'let by-gones, be by-gones' just doesn't cut it for them.
On the flip side, people experienced;
Fear and great concern for high-risk family members
Long term side effects
Loss of loved ones
Loss of businesses
Delays in surgeries and enduring all that comes with managing chronic pain and the stress of rescheduled procedures.
Inability to see loved ones in personal care homes or hospitals.
Not being able to host important family and community gatherings (i.e. funerals, weddings).
So much has gone unacknowledged. And it's when these things go unacknowledged by our closest friends and family that it hurts the most.
'We start to heal the moment we feel heard'.
This is one of my favorite quotes by Cheryl Richards. People can't begin to 'get over it' until there is acknowledgement. Someone who experienced segregation and job loss due to mandates needs to hear this was wrong and will never happen again. People who have been injured by injections require acknowledgment. People who are immunocompromised or at risk of illness need to know that they matter and that someone sees them.
One way to hear others is to sense and acknowledge.
A basic practice I share (usually on day one) with most of my clients experiencing nervous system dysregulation is how to sense and acknowledge difficult states they are experiencing. I call is S.A.S. and it goes something like this;
Sense what you are feeling. Notice the speed, tension, and any sensations in your b