Long Covid is the term used to describe the “condition in which a subset of patients infected with SARSCoV2 develop a wide range of debilitating chronic symptoms that do not resolve even years later,” according to the Abilities Research Center, Mount Sinai. Dr. Sally Riggs is a psychologist who had her own experience with Long Covid that left her feeling hopeless and isolated. Through her recovery journey, she became an expert and advocate for Covid long haulers, and dedicated her work to coaching, educating, and providing as much information as possible to anyone else going through the same struggles.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a time of confusion, fear, and isolation. As time went on and we learned more about the virus, a new battle emerged with individuals who seem to be experiencing a post viral illness (many with Long Covid fully recover from acute infection and months later their Long Covid starts).
Long Covid, or Post Acute Sequelae of Sars CoV2, is the term used to broadly describe when an individual experiences symptoms and conditions now known to be triggered by the spike protein, but largely different than acute infection for weeks, months, and in some cases years after their initial infection.
Dr. Sally Riggs is a psychologist who had her own experience with Long Covid. After initially getting Covid-19 in March of 2020, before the official lockdowns even began, Dr. Riggs found herself continuing to experience symptoms for months, which eventually turned into nearly two years. Her journey in recovery led her to finding a large community of Covid Long Haulers, and she found herself being consistently educated by her own, and others, experience.
Eventually, Dr. Riggs began to take it upon herself to help others in her community. She started online groups, appeared on podcasts and video channels, created an online course and wrote a book on all the information she had obtained. Now, she continues to reach as many people with Long Covid as possible, and has made incredible progress in developing her own programs to do just that.
“Despite what you’ve been told, recovery from Long COVID is possible. It takes time, effort, and patience. But it can be done. I know, because I have Long COVID. I understand what you’re going through.”
As previously mentioned, Dr. Riggs is a psychologist who has been involved in private practice for a number of years. Her role as a coach, however, became more prominent with the pandemic and her own personal experience with Covid-19. Previously she would take on some coaching roles for other mental health professionals to share ideas, methods, and overall lessons learned within the industry, which gave her a greater understanding and baseline knowledge of the field of coaching.
“The idea of doing direct client coaching really just came about as a result of Long Covid, because primarily I wanted to work with people who had Long Covid and offer my own experiences. However, Covid-19 is not a psychological disorder, so I needed to shift my mentality when it came to this kind of coaching.”
Before she got into coaching, however, she endured a lengthy and difficult battle with Covid-19 that continued for weeks after her initial infection. Unfortunately, those weeks would only be the beginning of her journey with Long Covid. Although she was sick, her priority was always her patients. Her passion for helping others is the reason she’s such a well respected and revered psychologist, and is also the reason she is such an inspiration for those in her community.
“I initially got sick in March 2020, before the official lockdowns even took place. Being a psychologist, at that point, we experienced a level of work we’ve never seen before. The world was stricken with anxiety and overwhelmed with unknowingness, so even though I was sick, I made it a priority to never miss an appointment when one of my patients needed me.
I continued with appointments and online zoom conferences for coaching, but being so sick I obviously found myself becoming extremely fatigued. Initially, I wanted to disregard the exhaustion because everything was being done online and I was working hard to get adjusted to that, and with Covid-19 itself we knew very little about it at that point, so I was hoping that it was mainly work related.
However, as time went on that fatigue not only lingered but grew stronger. Eventually that fatigue was joined by shortness of breath, chest pain, and it got to a point where as 2020 went on, every couple of days a new symptom was appearing.
I was still working, training, and all of those things. When the holidays came around that year I ended up flying to London to be with family, and what I quickly realized was that flying is one of the worst things you can do when experiencing Long Covid and its many symptoms. When I got to London, that was really the beginning of my chronic fatigue. I didn’t get out of bed for around 9 months after that,” Dr. Riggs stated.
As time went on her symptoms continued to linger, and made every day feel like a battle. While she was still prioritizing her patients, she hit a point where she knew she had to give her body the best chance it had at recovery. However, she unfortunately found out that even that wouldn’t be enough.
“As someone who’s self-employed, in 2021 I really had to push myself to work as much as my body could bear it in order to pay my bills. I reluctantly was taking on less and less work because I just couldn’t physically handle it. August 2021 I was planning on going back to London for a little while, but my body was way too sick. I ended up taking the entire month off in an attempt to rest and hopefully rebuild my strength.
Unfortunately that break did absolutely nothing, and when I started working again in September I was no better off than I was before,” Dr. Riggs stated.
After doing some research, Dr. Riggs was able to connect with a new Primary Care Physician who had experienced working with patients who were having Long term symptoms after getting Covid. Dr. Riggs then explained that her physician told her about something now known as the “Safe and Sound Protocol.”
The Safe and Sound Protocol is based on an algorithm invented by Dr. Steven Porges, who worked his entire life on Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory in general centers around the vagus nerve, which is responsible for fighting off infection in the body, mediating immune responses, and reducing inflammation. The theory itself breaks down the connection between the vagus nerve and trauma, specifically our emotional regulation, social connection and fear response.
“The Safe and Sound Protocol is music. It is music that has been manipulated to tease apart the high and low frequencies, so that only the middle frequency remains. And there’s something super special about this middle frequency – it is the frequency of human speech. The frequency that communicates safety to the nervous system.”
“The Safe and Sound Protocol is a non-invasive behavioral neural intervention that is intended to improve vagal tone and flexibility so that our nervous system can feel safe. It creates permanent and positive change in the nervous system. This intervention was the first thing that made a difference for me in my Covid recovery.
The protocol is only effective if executed effectively. I’ve heard all sorts of things said about using music in general to calm your nervous system, and yes, the safe and sound protocol is music, but it’s not just music, it’s been manipulated. The particular frequency chosen has the job of calming your nervous system.
The music itself is found in an app, it’s not on any streaming service or music platform. The music itself is an intervention for your nervous system.
Most of us with Long Covid spend a majority of our time in a shutdown immobilization freeze response, as characterized by the Polyvagal theory. In order to ‘get back up the ladder’ we need to move through sympathetic activation. Sympathetic activation refers to the experiences of anxiety, hypervigilance, insomnia, restlessness, etc.
What we want to be mindful of when doing any kind of intervention to the nervous system is the feeling. If it’s relaxing and calming, you’re not actually doing anything to your vagus nerve, and while we obviously don’t want to overwhelm the body, we need something that gives us an indication that we’re stretching the nervous system and improving its flexibility.
It engages the middle ear muscles that connect to our vagal nerve system, through listening to this middle frequency only music. It is a start to finish intervention, in that on completion of the 5 hours of music a permanent change is produced in a person’s nervous system (in contrast to external vagal nerve stimulators),” Dr. Riggs explained.
It’s important to re-emphasize the point that the Safe and Sound Protocol is not something one can just decide to do one day. The only true way to experience the protocol effectively is with a certified practitioner like Dr. Riggs.
“Having experienced my first sense of recovery through the Safe and Sound protocol, my first thought was that I immediately needed to train to become a Safe and Sound Protocol practitioner, so I could use my experience and newfound knowledge to help others who experienced/are experiencing what I have.”
Around December of that year, Dr. Riggs found herself feeling better as she reached the end of her protocol treatment. It was at this time where she reached a real turning point and knew she wanted to shift her focus to help people with Long Covid as the new year began. As a licensed therapist, Dr. Riggs was already a naturally curious individual who was always looking for ways to learn more about people and how to help them.
During her Safe And Sound training, her interest and passion for the protocol and Polyvagal Theory only grew, as well as her desire to bring this kind of treatment into her own practice.
“I reached out to others within the Long Covid community online (podcasts, YouTube, etc.) to ask if I could become more involved and speak on their channels. I have a background in public speaking, and that was something else that I wanted to get back to since I was feeling better.”
As Dr. Riggs began appearing on more channels and episodes of various online programs; she found that more people were reaching out and wanting to speak with her about their own experiences with Long Covid. While she had only considered coaching under this umbrella before, these inquiries gave her the push to try to help as many people as she could.
Most recently, Dr. Riggs has published her book, “Recover,” which focuses on Polyvagal strategies for Covid long haulers.
“In 2021 I was so sick, laying on the couch all the time, mindlessly scrolling through social media. At the time, there were many groups online about their symptoms, treatments, and articles that group members wrote about their experience and what worked, or didn’t for them. That sense of comradery was arguably the initial spark behind ‘Recover.’ I don’t know if I knew at the time that I wanted to write a book, but I knew I wanted to do something to get my experience into the world,” she explained.
In “Recover” Dr. Riggs breaks this down even further by discussing the relationship between trauma, the nervous system, and Long Covid. Additionally, she goes into great detail about the science behind Long Covid, and emphasizes that this is a physical illness that impacts everyone differently.
The book will give readers the chance to understand that the suffering they’ve been experiencing is real and that they’re not alone. Readers will “learn how Polyvagal Theory can be applied to long haulers, gain skills, techniques, and somatic practices to turn one’s life around. Take steps on your way to recover a new way of being for yourself.
If you identify as a Type-A overachiever and have been going down the rabbit hole, researching your ailments and coming up with more questions than answers, then this book will be your last stop. By learning about and leveraging Polyvagal Theory and the Safe and Sound Protocol, you too can redirect the chaos that the virus has manifested so that you can rise up and live your life again.”
It’s important to note that Dr. Riggs delivers all of this information in a way that is accessible and digestible to the average person. Covid is something that has impacted all of us, and for a while even the most professional scientists in the field didn’t understand how this virus worked. That experience is not lost on Dr. Riggs, so she wanted to ensure that everyone had an equal opportunity to learn all the information as she was.
The creation of “Recover” also led Dr. Riggs to develop her online course, which covers the information she gives in her book as well.
Again, it was important for Dr. Riggs to share her knowledge in as many formats and mediums as possible to accommodate every kind of learner. While some people benefit from an independent approach such as reading, others are more comfortable with a teacher there to guide them through the information, which Dr. Riggs delivers through her course, “Recover: Polyvagal Strategies To Calm Your Nervous System For Long Covid Recovery.”
Dr. Riggs understands that every individual learns differently. Where one person may benefit from one-on-one coaching, another may do better in a lecture setting, or by reading the information themselves. Dr. Riggs has spread her knowledge over multiple platforms and mediums. Her YouTube channel has dozens of videos covering a wide variety of topics centering around Long Covid, including self-care strategies, setting boundaries during holidays, and more videos all emphasizing a sense of community.
“In the beginning of this experience there were only a couple online groups of maybe 20 to 30 people, and that was great at the time, but to see how much this community built on helping one another has grown, is lovely. While it’s of course unfortunate that it’s growing out of our experiences with illness, it’s amazing to see the sense of community.
When you’re sick, things do tend to happen in a half-hazard way. As I’ve grown, I would say I’m around 95% recovered, and some of that has just happened within the last month,” Dr. Riggs stated. (For context, she tried a new medical treatment in the summer that set her recovery back considerably, and she has just pulled up again in the last few months).
“Through these last couple of months, as I’ve improved, I’ve had more time and energy to really reflect on the past two years and look at all of the information and data that has come out of it. That revisiting of information and analysis is what arguably led me to writing the book and posting online more, and now it has me even more excited for the coming year and creating an even more strategic and clear vision of what we want to do to help even more people!”
When looking towards the future, Dr. Riggs explained: “We’re definitely looking into ways to expand the support individuals get through our online course through reaching an even wider audience as we continue to grow.”
Dr. Riggs also mentioned wanting to take her coursework even further by providing a version of it for healthcare professionals, including counselors, coaches, holistic professionals, and others who work with Covid long haulers.
She also hinted at looking to develop a retreat based on the information given in her book, and providing participants with a healing environment where they can feel safe and supported.
That’s what it’s been about for Dr. Riggs since the beginning of her experience with her course, coaching, book, lectures, and more.
She prioritized reaching as many individuals who have experienced, or are experiencing, Long Covid and giving them as much knowledge and support as possible. As a psychologist, Dr. Riggs was already an expert on creating a safe space for the people who need it, and now she’s offered that same level of comfort and care to a community of millions who are navigating the struggle that she herself has endured and worked hard to overcome.
To learn more about Long Covid, The Safe And Sound Protocol, and Dr. Sally Riggs herself, check out her website by clicking here!
To learn more about her book, “Recover: Polyvagal Strategies for COVID Long Haulers,” click here!
For more information about her Course on Long Covid, the Polyvagal Theory, Recovery, and so much more, click here!
Also check out Dr. Sally Riggs YouTube channel for dozens of informative videos on Long Covid and more by clicking here!
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.