COVID-19 has turned us into reptiles.
Or to be more accurate, in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime viral threat, the pandemic has switched on our reptilian brains at the expense of our more mammalian, social ones. And the best way to address that switch – through interpersonal engagement with trusted friends and family – has largely been snatched away through two years of social distancing, work-from-home mandates, and shuttered entertainment and dining venues.
The result: Many of us are digging our heels even deeper into our anxieties as we search for partners to help us “co-regulate” but who are now, more often than not, on the other side of a Zoom screen.
This analysis isn’t mine. It comes from Indiana University Prof. Stephen Porges, who has, for four decades, been psychotherapy’s strongest proponent of the Polyvagal Theory.
Polyvagal Theory takes its name from the vagus nerve, the longest in the human body, starting in our heads, passing by our faces, zipping through our hearts, and ending up deep in the gut.
The vagus nerve is responsible for regulating our autonomic nervous system (which controls our heart rate, blood pressure and respiration) when we get stressed. The functioning of the vagus nerve is a big reason why, when we’re agitated, we get a stomachache.
The vagus nerve is also behind what Porges calls “the heart-face connection.” We take many of our social cues from each other’s eye movements, facial expressions, even the sounds of our voices.
But what happens when we can’t connect in person, when we’re unable to see the smiles on our friends’ faces because we’re covered up, whether by a mask or on a poorly lit Zoom call? It pulls the rug out from under our coping skills and allows our reptilian brains to run wild. You go to the supermarket and wonder, “Are you a risk?” about the person in front of you in line.
The reptilian brain is the most ancient part of who we are. It is where the fight or flight response originates. That is why, when danger arises, reptiles will often “play dead” or run away.
When our reptilian brains are switched on through some kind of trauma – be that fear, danger, confusion or conflict – we act in antisocial, confrontational ways, displaying anger and belligerence. Logic gets lost as we comprehend the world as black and white, right and wrong, threat vs security.
Nuance is not something at which alligators excel.
Understanding how the vagus nerve and trauma interact could go a long way to grokking society’s reaction to COVID-19, the rise of anti-vaxxers, and the hold that conspiracy theories have on otherwise rational individuals. It could even restore some empathy for those with whom we disagree.
After all, “we don’t expect reptiles to be social,” Porges says. “So why do we expect people to trust others” when they’re feeling particularly lizard-like?
Like reptiles, “when people experience trauma, they shut down too,” Porges explains. This may have “an evolutionary adaptive function, even if it’s not the best for our mental health.”
IF POLYVAGAL Theory sheds insight on how people have been responding during the COVID-19 crisis, can it also help us find a way out of our current culture of distrust?
“Many anti-vax people may genuinely believe that taking a vaccine places them at risk,” Porges says. “It generates a threat reaction and, when you’re under threat, you’re like a different organism – a reptile. Your ability to trust will be compromised.”
The Polyvagal solution, Porges exhorts, is other people. We can tolerate a trauma like COVID-19, “if we have an external opportunity to co-regulate with friends, in the workplace, at school. [But] that’s been hard to come by during the last two years of pandemic.”
Polyvagal Theory helps us understand traumas beyond COVID, too.
“When you support a particular candidate for office, you don’t hear balanced arguments or other points of view,” Porges says. “So, when that person loses, you’re convinced a threat is going on, that there’s fraud. We extrapolate and think everyone shares those views and others are outliers.”
That said, when you’re in reptile mode, you still crave co-regulation. But where can you find that when your views have been rejected by the mainstream? From conspiracy theory communities which will readily step into that void. And once you feel supported, it is mighty difficult to break free.
But there’s good news. Just like there are super-spreaders of COVID, there are also “super co-regulators.”
“These are people who, when they walk into a room, you feel disarmed and comfortable,” Porges says. They make you feel at ease so you can start to distance yourself from any trauma-induced conspiracy-leaning reptilian tendencies.
The world needs more super co-regulators. And we need access to them, ideally in person.
Does that mean I’m joining the agitators calling for an end to quarantines, isolation and masks? Not yet – the Omicron variant is still too widespread. And it is certainly possible to signal emotional encouragement by making a conscious effort to look people in the eyes, to raise your eyebrows or tilt your head – even while wearing a mask.
But once we get past this surge, it would behoove us to reconsider lockdowns and Zoom school and other reactions to the pandemic that have been spinning up our reptile brains. They’ve served us well in terms of minimizing fatalities (yes, 5.5 million people have died, but it could have been so much worse). As COVID transitions from pandemic to endemic, we’ll need to transition our responses, too.
I’m still scared of catching COVID. But I don’t want to remain an anti-social crocodile forever. If I incorporate Polyvagal Theory into my way of thinking, maybe I could even muster up a bit of mammalian empathy for those who don’t share my opinions.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com