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…
I almost didn’t write this post. I mean, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, when you might expect a pervasive mood of doom and gloom. Instead, I see people thinking positive, reaching out to help each other. People establishing their own self-care routines, finding creative ways to be ok. Why not just savor the moment?
Apparently, I am not the kind of person to leave well enough alone. I prefer to turn over all the interesting rocks to see what’s under them.
In this case, it turns out that SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has some expertise in Disaster Recovery. They’ve even created a template that might show us how this can be expected to go. I think the pandemic qualifies as a disaster, so this could be expected to follow the pattern. An incredibly long lasting disaster. Unprecedented, in fact. So we don’t really know how it’s going to play out. But the Phases of Disaster chart suggests a potential path.
SAMHSA’s website explores each stage a bit, but they’re talking about disasters with a fairly limited duration – a hurricane, for example. Hurricane season might last for months, but the hurricane itself is a discreet event. Hurricane Katrina, for example, led to flooding that lasted much longer, but the floods were still short compared to Covid 19.
SAMSHA describes the Heroic phase as “characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior…” Right now, it seems like we all want to help. I’ve felt this myself. A fierce urge to DO SOMETHING that will make a difference. Whether it’s making masks, delivering food, or opening your hotel to healthcare professionals, like Ty Warner, owner of the Four Seasons hotel in NYC, has done, we want to make things better.
SAMHSA describes the Honeymoon phase as “…characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly….” . I see people creating community, inviting each other to virtual tea parties, teaching each other skills and offering free classes. People are thinking positive, hoping to build a better future in the space that has been razed by the virus. This Honeymoon phase is short lived. But we may be teaching ourselves how to hold space for each other. I have some hope that our new skills and understanding will help us get through the Disillusionment phase.
In the Disillusionment phase “…optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll…” I can imagine this too easily. People will be sad and angry. Ok, despairing and furious. There will not be enough resources, and what there is won’t be fairly distributed. Racial disparities will be glaringly obvious to all but the most willfully obtuse. My imagination, fueled by fear, pictures a disturbingly dystopian future. This is why I paused – do we really need to think about this? Now?
But of course we do. There’s no need to imagine the worst, but If we don’t understand what’s happening, then we’re likely to misinterpret it. We might think that all our efforts at being helpful and building community have failed and the whole world is terrible. But if we know it’s a perfectly normal development in the process, we can keep working through it. Maybe we can prepare ourselves for the next phases.
Of course, I don’t really know. This is my first disaster. I was around for the tornado that went through Louisville, Ky in the late 70’s. But I didn’t experience personal losses or the need for recovery. I want to go find some people who have survived major disasters and ask them 100 questions.
I might do that, but this is a time for uncertainty. There is no template to tell us definitively how this will go, and no way of knowing exactly how each of us will experience it.
As a trauma expert and a coach, there are a few things I believe that I can rely on. Here are my top four.
Whatever you’re thinking or feeling right now is normal. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling about this over the next year or two is probably going to be normal too.
We’re going to have a lot of feelings we don’t like and will want them to go away. We will try to avoid the feelings in countless ways that aren’t actually helpful.
We will not want to face the damage and pain that Covid 19 is going to cause. We will minimize and deny, we’ll try to bargain it away. We will want it to already be over.
We will get through this We can get through this with less suffering if we can sit with the discomfort, if we can face this with a nonjudgmental curiosity, acknowledging all our feelings, and if we can be compassionate with ourselves and each other.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I worried that people would freak out. I thought we would all need new kinds of support and special self-care. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Turns out that the first principal of coaching really is true: “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.”
On social media, I see people doing amazing things to reach out to each other. They check in with each other and offer help when possible. People are sharing tips and resources and support in unprecedented ways. They’re creating on-line networks of support – like the “My Friends Do Awesome Things – Let’s Learn from Them” page. Membership rapidly grew to 2500 users who offer opportunities to learn everything from languages, ballet, and quilting to how to install a bidet.
In my coaching practice, people continue to work toward their goals. Ok, the circumstances around them are different. They may have to accommodate trying to work from home, home-schooling kids, self-isolation, or risking their well-being to provide essential services. But they continue to move steadfastly toward their goals.
I don’t mean things are smooth or necessarily pleasant. These are challenging times, (isn’t that a nice understatement) and I imagine most of us are riding an emotional roller coaster at times. Last night, I had a moment of sadness/rage that came with an urge to knock over furniture and yell “Fuck” loudly. I do not usually feel that way. But, just like waves in the ocean, the feeling rose up and passed.
I’m not saying that we aren’t having a hard time. Good grief, of course we are. And I’m not saying that we’re all coping beautifully all the time. Some of us are still in denial. Some of us feel overwhelmed with grief. But in these times, it is OK to not be OK. We can re-define what “I’m OK” means.
One thing that’s been helpful for me is carving out the time and (mental) space to breathe and center myself. Of course, that’s not new, I always need that time and space. Sometimes, in that space, I think I can faintly discern some of the pathway in front of me.
What has been most helpful for you? What do you need right now?