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  • Dr. Katie O'Connor

Viva Las Vagus! The unique way you're being impacted by social distancing.

Nope, I didn't spell that wrong, this post is not about Sin City! I wanted to talk to you about your Vagus nerve. Sound exciting? I thought not, but read on and hear me out anyway alright?

Right now is one of the most unique and strange times that many of us have (and hopefully will) experience in our lifetimes. Up front, this post is also NOT a debate of the necessity/efficacy of social distancing or mask wearing. There's enough of that going on and I hope that people are doing their research and coming to the conclusion that makes the most sense for them when it comes to those topics. What I want to talk about is how this all is impacting you, regardless of how we might feel about it.

To understand how mask wearing and social distancing are affecting us, we need to visit how our brain and body work in social situations.

Let's say my friend invites me to a barbeque at her new boyfriends house. I say yes, because ribs and burgers are delicious, even though I'm not stoked about meeting a bunch of new people. When I show up, I scope everyone out, trying to find my friend so I don't have to chit chat with any strangers. We say hi, and she introduces me to some cool people and slowly I relax into the gathering as I wait for those mouthwatering ribs.

Sounds like an average experience, but let's slow down Magic School Bus style and see what's taking place in the body during all of this. When we go anywhere that involves some type of social interaction, our body/brain goes through a series of actions to evaluate the relative safety of the situation. While we might think this process is being carried out by our conscious thinking brain, that's not really where it starts.

Interestingly enough, in his work on the Polyvagal Theory, Dr. Stephen Porges discovered that most of the sensory info (sight, sound, smell, etc.) goes straight to the subconscious portions of the brain that regulate autonomic (not consciously controlled) functions. What does that mean? Well it means that your brain sends info from its surroundings straight down your Vagus nerve to the heart and lungs. If they situation were deemed safe, your heart/lungs would get the message to keep on keepin' on. On the other hand, if the situation were dangerous, then they would get a message to speed up the heart rate and breathing rate in case you had to flee. Only once that change in your body happens, does a message go FROM the heart and lungs to your conscious mind to alert you of the decision.

Stay with me! If you didn't quite catch it, what we're saying here is that you never had a say in the matter! Your eyes saw, your ears heard, your subconscious decided (based on previous experiences) and changed your physiology without your permission!! To top it all off, "you" - the conscious thinking portion, only get the info once things are already changing.

Ok. Blah blah blah. What does this have to do with social distancing and wearing masks? SO MUCH! The research on this topic showed that the split second "decision" your subconscious mind is making, in a situation involving other people, is based largely off of facial expression and movements of the face. Why do villains in masks always make us uncomfortable or scared? Why does someone lurking in the shadows always get your heart rate up? Because your subconscious can't evaluate the situation properly and therefor must interpret it as dangerous.

Starting to see where this is going? When we are out at the store, and every stranger is wearing a mask, our vagus nerve is constantly sending feedback to our heart and lungs that we may be unsafe. Long term, we'll end up dealing with symptoms of prolonged stress like increased levels of cortisol, decreased immunity and other more psychological disturbances. In short, we NEED to see people's faces.

This is extremely important for everyone, but especially my pregnant mamas, because two lives can be affected. If you haven't already read up on the effect of transferred stress from mom to baby, then definitely check that out as well. Long story short, there is a ton of new research showing us how a mother's stress will affect both a fetus' physiology and psychology both short term and long term.

So, in a situation where we may be required to wear masks/social distance, what can we do to mitigate these effects?

I think there are a lot of things we can do. Here are some suggestions to get you started. Notice what feels good for you.

1. Only wear a mask when you will be closer than six feet from someone. The mask is there to prevent droplet transfer. So if you will be outdoors, playing a game of tennis, at home on a video call, even in a parking lot, keeping your mask down will allow others to see your face and get the good feels.

2. Look at people's eyes as much as possible. For some reason people have a hard time looking at people right now, but if you can make really good eye contact you might be able to pick up a smile behind that mask.

3. Get more verbal. Say hello, ask questions, make interaction with those you are near but distancing from. This can help you both let your guard down.

4. Use more gestures. While we don't want you to look like the wacky waving arm flailing inflatable tube man (sorry, Family Guy reference), increasing using your hands to wave, give thumbs up, air five or just express yourself can also help with creating a safer space.

5. Got a loved one? Spouse, bestie or baby? Stare at their face. Yup. Super uncomfortable. I'm sweating just suggesting it. But, the evidence doesn't lie. Staring at someone's face that you care about can actually reverse a lot of the effects of chronic stress.

6. Be Social. No, we aren't encouraging going against guidelines, but if you must go out, be social. Be kind, be courteous, say hi, wave, smile behind your mask, ask your cashier how their day is. Use your social skills so they remember what it's like. Hop on zoom calls, play games with friends over the phone. Facetime, Snapchat, ding dong ditch your mother in laws house with flowers. Stay engaged.

If you've been on social media for the past couple of weeks then you've probably already started to see some of the effects of what we're talking about. People that you normally get along with lashing out, strangers attacking strangers in groups, family members saying harsh things, all things that are really out of the norm of behavior we normally see. This is the response to a constant state of low grade fear. If we can't prevent it, lets combat it! Try out some of the tips above and see how you feel!

Dr. Katie O'Connor is the expert prenatal chiropractor at Life Naturally Chiropractic, an Orland Park, Illinois based chiropractic office specializing in the care of women before during and after pregnancy. Contact Dr. Katie O’Connor at Life Naturally Chiropractic for more information today.

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