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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Bryan

Use Your Presence as a Healing Tool

Eyes wide, body tense, she radiated anxiety as she moved from a vaccine station to the observation area. One of our students guided her to a seat, handing her a sticker, a mask, and an information sheet. Our team had been vaccinating the public for months at that point, and it wasn’t hard to pick out the worried ones; I walked over to see how she was faring. She was breathing quickly through her mask and was restless. “Would you like some water?” I asked, as I offered her a bottle. “Yes, I’ll be okay in a minute. I was scared to come, but then I saw how sick my dad got from COVID so I made myself do this.” Her foot was tapping. I brought myself to her level and caught her eyes, keeping my body soft, slowing my deep breathing. She held my gaze and her foot slowed, but then she looked away to sip her water and the next thing I knew she was up heading for the exit. “I’ve got to get out of here - I can’t breathe!” I followed closely behind. Once outside in the brisk air, I asked if she would stay a few more minutes with me. She nodded, I made eye contact again, held her arm, and began to rock. She rocked with me. I hummed along to our rhythm, her breathing slowed. After five minutes or so she was calm and said she felt much better; I felt it was safe enough for her to drive away. She asked if I would be there for her second shot and I said I certainly would!

Therapeutic use of self. I used awareness of myself to soothe this dear soul. It reminded me of when I worked in family practice; I can’t tell you how many miserably ill patients would say, “I feel better (already!)“ as I was walking out of the exam room. I credited this to their having a diagnosis, and usually a prescription in hand, or maybe it was because I was friendly…now I know that it was my presence co-regulating theirs.

This post’s beautiful graphic, by Stasia Burrington, illustrates what I know to be deeply true: that we are all connected - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Wisdom traditions have spoken of this throughout history and now science is catching up, as we begin to comprehend the fabulously complex, clever ways of our being. I’m thinking of the polyvagal theory here, by Stephen Porges, which explains why my rocking movement and humming so effectively lessened the fear of my vaccine recipient. We like to think of the brain in our head as the CEO of our bodies, with information flowing top down, instructing our bodies what to do to stay safe and healthy. In fact, 80% of information flows from body to head brain, by way of gut, heart, and into our survival brain. Mammals have two branches of this vagus nerve (which Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother's Hands, calls the ‘soul nerve’): the dorsal branch, ancient and unmyelinated, communicates messages from below the diaphragm, while the ventral branch, younger, speedier due to myelination, connects with everything above the diaphragm. Dorsal vagus = gut, moral knowledge. Ventral vagus = state of feeling safe and social. The ventral branch wanders through the heart, lungs, voice box, ears, and facial muscles. The vagus nerve is integral to neuroception, our ability to sense safety versus danger. We receive information from the outside (e.g., fire), from our internal organs, and from between nervous systems (ours and other mammals). A smiling face, someone fully listening to you, your nervous system sensing that another person’s heart rate and breath are slow and even, usually all communicate safety, thereby clearing the way to be social. Make sense?

What’s so cool is that when we know this we can use it to our advantage. For instance, if I’m stressed, I exhale way longer than the length of my inhale, I scan my body for hidden tension and release those muscles. This has my ventral vagus communicating safety to my survival brain, which then allows that information to go on up to my rational, thinking brain. When my being is calm, other nervous systems sense that and are co-regulated to a calmer state as well. (Click here for 5 Ways to Stimulate Your Vagus Nerve).

My favorite memory of our vaccine clinic, circa May 2021, was when a young man who was on the autism spectrum came in with his mother. Both were anxious and we wanted to vaccinate Mom first. Her son was restless, vocalizing, and self-stimulating with hand movements. I asked him to walk with me, and began to mirror his movements, including rocking, touching palms, and softly answering his questions. I had a slight smile on my face and again, kept my body soft. Mom was successfully vaccinated, but we couldn’t get him vaccinated that day. Nevertheless, no “scene” occurred, and my students loved my “dance” with this young man.

We are all connected. Let's use this knowledge to be a healing presence to one another.

To me this image captures "neuroception," or two nervous systems interacting.
Touch, by Stasia Burrington

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