Remarkable Polyvagal-based interventions that help you heal from long COVID
Written by Kianna Morgan, a therapist in training and MSW student. Kianna is passionate about trauma-informed practices and enjoys writing as a way to share empowering information with people suffering from trauma and chronic stress.
What is long COVID?
Long Covid, or post-acute sequelae of COVID-19, is a label that has been popping up with increasing frequency across news outlets, social media platforms, support groups and more. According to the CDC, “Long COVID is a range of symptoms that can last weeks or months after first being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 or can appear weeks after infection. Long COVID can happen to anyone who has had COVID-19, even if the illness was mild, or they had no symptoms.”
The combination, severity and length of symptoms varies person to person, but tends to include symptoms like: fatigue, headaches, “brain fog”, loss of smell and/or taste, chest pain, heart palpitations, muscle and joint pain, and more.
Confoundingly, Long COVID shows up in folks who were otherwise thought to be recovered, are younger, and/or had very mild to no symptoms. In February 2021 the NIH announced an initiative to study Long COVID. They hope to identify the causes of Long COVID along with the means to prevent and treat it. For now doctors and patients are working with collections of anecdotal evidence and theories to find best practices for treatment.
Here at Red Beard Somatic Therapy, we approach Long COVID from a holistic lens. We aim to support Long COVID patients by using tools that regulate the nervous system and thereby allow the other systems of the body to return to optimal states of function.
Long COVID may be a strong immune reaction that causes dysregulation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Mount Sinai, an innovative center for Post-COVID care and recovery, monitored COVID long-haulers and noticed that their symptoms mimicked dysautonomia. Dysautonomia is a condition that impairs the ANS which controls involuntary bodily functions. A few of the functions compromised in dysautonomia are our blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, breathing, and temperature regulation.
The wide variety and severity of symptoms associated with Long COVID may in-part be due to the degree of autonomic dysregulation the patient is experiencing.
When our ANS and ability to regulate our body is out of whack we are sent into a fight or flight response (SNS). This means our body hits the "gas pedal" as a stress response when it senses that homeostasis is off. This can become chronic until we re-establish healthy parasympathetic tone in the nervous system.
So, what does Long COVID have to do with the polyvagal theory?
If you are new to the polyvagal theory, we recommend our previous blog post that covers it in great detail. We’ll provide a brief overview here.
According to the polyvagal theory, the autonomic nervous system is what drives much of our behavior, determines how we react to stressors, and dictates whether an experience is traumatic. It determines how to respond based on the information the vagus nerve provides. The vagus nerve wanders from our brainstem to our gut and innervates our heart, organs, and lungs. It is the messenger that transmits signals from our organs to our brain, which then responds based on their activity levels.
When our body sends signals to our brain that we are safe, our nervous system shifts into the parasympathetic branch which lets us feel connected and also supports optimal conditioning for all our other systems (i.e. immunime, endocrine, gastrointestinal, etc). We call this state homeostasis or social engagement.
When our body does not feel safe the defensive adaptations of our nervous system kick into gear. Those responses come from both the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic nervous system (freeze). Yes, the part of the nervous system involved in homeostasis can also kick into a defensive response.
When we are living in these defensive adaptations they alter our tissue tone, respiration and heart rates, chemical and hormonal balance, digestive activity, and more. In the short term, this is advantageous. Preparing the body to digest your lunch is a poor use of energy if you need to run from a threat! In the long term, living in these defensive states will negatively impact many of our systems leaving us less resilient in the face of new stressors, like COVID.
The global trauma of the COVID-19 Pandemic has pushed many of our nervous systems into highly defensive states that have been activated for over a year now. Add to that getting COVID, with an already taxed system, and we can see why those with Long COVID may be experiencing a double whammy.
The good news is that through polyvagal-informed somatic therapies, we can help the nervous system move towards regulation. In doing so, we will also support all the other systems of the body. Here at Red Beard Somatic Therapy, we have seen many of our clients experience drastic improvements to their overall health and reductions in symptoms like chronic fatigue, chronic pain, IBS, and more.
What are some Polyvagal-informed somatic therapies that can help heal long COVID?
All polyvagal-informed somatic therapies work with the body. The aim is to help you connect safely with yourself, activate the Ventral Vagal Complex, and help you feel empowered to work with your nervous system - rather than fight against it.
Because we have a variety of somatic therapies we work with here at Red Beard, we can work with you to find the best entry point into this work. Most of our clients end up working with multiple therapies as they support each other beautifully.
The primary tools we work with are: Somatic Experiencing, Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises, The Safe & Sound Protocol, and Somatics & Yoga Therapy. Each of these therapies help shift the nervous system towards regulation and support optimal health in the body’s other systems. Through that process it is possible to also experience a reduction in Long COVID symptoms.
Red Beard Somatic Therapy has a team of therapists that specialize in practices based on the polyvagal theory that help regulate your nervous system.
Our somatic therapists would be honored to support you as you walk along your path of healing. Book with us now to begin your healing journey