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Using Circle of Security to Navigate COVID-19

We get activated by all kinds of threats, including those associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Today we are all experiencing threats in a number of ways – the loss of a predictable future, the loss of our freedoms, the loss of life as we know it. At Circle of Security International we’re concerned with how the lack of human connection, economic uncertainty, food insecurity, health disparities, racial inequalities, and the fear of illness, and even death, are affecting all of us. We’re beginning to think about the ripple effect from the activation of all kinds of threats compounded by so much social isolation.

In times of threat and anxiety, we are biologically prepared to seek out our attachment figures. When frightened, our instinct to find our Safe Haven takes over and our motivation to explore and engage with the world is deactivated until we have accessed comfort and soothing. In COS, this dynamic between Safe Haven and Secure Base is represented by the Bottom and Top of the Circle, with the attachment figure represented by the Hands.

The good news is that our access to Bigger, Stronger, Wiser and Kind Hands (our attachment figure) allows us to experience soothing and emotion regulation. While closeness to our attachment figure does not eliminate the threat, the comfort received in close connection provides us with a way to organize and contain our distress. With these experiences, we are able to engage with the world and continue to live in the face of significant uncertainty. The ready availability of this comfort gives us confidence that we can return to this special person to fill our cup any time we are overwhelmed with the intensity of fear and distress. This capacity to seek proximity and experience soothing from a Strong and Kind caregiver is the hallmark of secure relationship. Interactions with a reliable and sensitive caregiver (or partner/friend, etc) allow us to navigate these deeply challenging times. It does not resolve the threat, but a secure relationship provides us with the resources necessary to continue to live and find joy and safety amidst distress.

And there are those of us walking the world living with a half empty cup, who didn’t exactly receive the necessary soothing required to fill our cup and find security in our close relationships. Now in the face of threat/fear, some of us manage our struggle by overfocusing on the Top of the Circle – emphasizing productivity, independence, autonomy. We’ve move away from our loved ones when we need them most; maybe we turn to work. Others may find themselves stuck on the Bottom of the Circle, feeling more anxious and overwhelmed, even helpless. We can’t seem to get anything done. For both, it’s hard to find the necessary soothing in the face of distress. We limit our movement around the Circle of Security. But here’s the good news. Even though it may be our default to reject most what we need, understanding the Circle of Security gives a path to recognize what we need and have a choice.

Life is guaranteed to provide circumstances that we would never choose. Our deepest intention is that we are able to meet all circumstances with both grit and grace: the necessary capacity to stand firm in the face of difficulty and the trust that allows a willingness to ask for and provide support when it is needed. By understanding the universally shared experience of attachment as explained using the Circle of Security, we can begin to recognize that what we learn from close relationships with important people in our lives is how to build the capacities most necessary for the future we all want for ourselves and for our children. During this time of social distancing, hold your loved ones close and find ways to fill your own cup.