This post starts with a meme from Jennifer Yaeger, LPC- in case you can't see it, the meme says: I want to acknowledge that living through this pandemic is a trauma. As a trauma specialist, I think there are a few things that are helpful to know. - Parts of our brain have shut down in order for us to survive. - As a result, we are not able to fully process a lot of what is going on around us. - Feeling somewhat numb and out of touch with our emotions is normal, especially if you have lived through trauma before. - Some people are also more apt to feel hypervigilant or anxious, while others become more hypoactive or depressed. Neither means anything other than indicating your predisposition to dealing with extreme stress. - In-depth processing of trauma happens years later, when we feel emotionally safe to deal with it. - When in the midst of trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering your expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.
This is true. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. But it’s not the end of the story. We know that when we’re in the middle of a trauma we don’t feel our feelings – it’s not safe to feel our feelings. We’re focused on surviving. When you’re in fight-flight or freeze mode, parts of the frontal cortex shut down, so it doesn’t get in the way of you taking action. The frontal cortex is the part of your brain that involves logic and reason and helps you make rational decisions. When you’re in a panic, and you say, “I can’t think straight,” that is literally true. Having part of the brain shut down keeps you from standing around being philosophical when you need to fight or run. If a tiger is running toward you, it’s not the best time to wonder if they’re on the endangered species list.
But this is not the kind of trauma where fighting or running is going to be helpful. Freezing, or playing dead, might sound more like what we’re doing, but the immobility of the freeze state is also not going to be helpful. Fortunately, we don’t have to stay stuck in that mode of reacting.
When we can down-regulate the nervous system, we can reduce our level of reactivity. There is nothing wrong with being in fight-flight or freeze, but there are ways to move out of that mode of responding and into more helpful states, when it’s safe to do that. Not necessarily “calm and relaxed” – that’s not going to be helpful all the time. But when we are able to manage emotional regulation, our level of arousal more closely matches the needs of the situation.
That idea branches out into many paths. But for now I want to point out that one way to move out of fight-flight or freeze mode is through your breathing. Just noticing your breathing, focusing on it, can be enough to help your brain begin to engage more fully. When you focus on your breathing , it will slow down. You don’t even have to take long deep breaths, just breathing more slowly, exhaling longer than you inhale, is enough. That sends the message to the frontal cortex that you’re not in immediate danger, that you don’t have to run or fight, that it’s ok to start thinking again. And, you know, that can be helpful.
Focusing on the breath isn’t the right answer for everyone. In fact, some people are triggered by focusing on their breath and become more uncomfortable. Fortunately, that’s not the only way to reduce your level of reactivity. One other way is to focus on your foot. Yes, you read that right, focus on your foot. Your right foot or your left foot, it doesn’t matter. Pick one This is a strategy I learned in the Mindful Self-Compassion course I took and it’s totally legit. If you bring your attention to your foot, bringing the attention back every time you notice it’s wandered, it will help you down regulate your emotional state.
One of the things I do in coaching is help you find your own ways to move from this over-aroused, hyper-vigilant state to a level that gives you more flexibility. You may be overwhelmed with anxiety, unable to sleep or concentrate, and trying to numb yourself to escape this discomfort. Working with me, you can learn how to move from this state to a more effective level, when that’s appropriate. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be calm and relaxed all the time. But it will give you more choice in how you respond to the situation.
There’s a meme going around that asks “Who do I want to be in Covid-19?” It shows 3 states – Fear, the Learning Zone, and the Growth Zone. It describes behaviors associated with each of the zones. The Fear Zone includes grabbing toilet paper you don’t need and complaining a lot. In the Learning Zone, you might start to give up what you can’t control and identify your emotions. The Growth Zone includes keeping a happy emotional state and spreading hope, thinking of the others and seeing how to help them.
It seems pretty clear to me that the Growth Zone is the desired state. Who wouldn’t want to be that happy, helpful person? Although, full disclosure, when I see this meme, I have a fierce urge to complain. But that’s probably just me. The meme doesn’t acknowledge that the pandemic is a trauma. It seems to suggest that being in the Growth Zone is a personal choice, rather than a reflection of your levels of emotional regulation. And it implies that “keeping a happy emotional state” is a realistic goal.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against being happy! I prefer it myself. But all my experience, as a therapist, as a coach, and as a person, tells me that when you try to avoid the unpleasant feelings, you lose the good ones too. Following teachers like Pema Chodron and Brene Brown, I work with people to allow themselves to feel all their feelings. Feelings come and go, like waves in the ocean. If we can sit with the unpleasant feelings, we can fully appreciate the positive feelings. And we can learn to respond from a place of thoughtfulness rather than reactivity. Not all the time, but some of the time.
If that sounds like a lot to take on, that’s ok. Remember where the meme at the beginning of this article. Living through this pandemic is a trauma. “When in the midst of. a trauma, just getting by emotionally and functionally is okay. Lowering expectations and being kind to yourself and others is vital.” That’s where we start.
The challenge for many of us is that we don’t really know what it would look like to lower expectations and be kind to ourselves. I’ll be writing more about that, and I’m going to be offering a free 90 minute class on Mindful Self-Compassion every Saturday in May. Stay tuned for more information…