We are all in the middle of a trauma situation right now. Some are coping, others are not doing so well. This has nothing to do with how ‘strong’ or otherwise we are. This is about more than having ‘mental health issues’. Trauma has an effect on all of us and if we don’t have ways to discharge trauma we will be left with the after effects of undischarged trauma. This is called post-traumatic stress.
It may be that those who are coping better, have habits that help with managing trauma. Conversely, those not doing so well may also have a prior history of undischarged trauma and this might be being triggered every time they go to the supermarket or watch the news headlines.
Mindful of our triggers
I had a client say to me the other day “whichever way you turn, no one really cares about us as (certain type of healthcare worker). We never get mentioned, or noticed. That is the story of my life.” (I have taken the profession out to protect confidentiality)
It goes without saying that my client was and is getting attention in their job. But this was their experience in their childhood, so they were experiencing current events through this lens.
Another client said to me “I feel abandoned. No one contacts me. No one cares and not one person is there for me.” Nevertheless, when we explored further people had been contacting them. This person had not been proactive in reaching out though, and was waiting for others to make the first move (which will reduce the amount of contact of course). This is another example of how our past traumas of emotional neglect, real or perceived abandonment and loss can mean that the current situation is more highly charged.
The trauma of Covid-19
Nevertheless, the trauma of COVID-19 is real and rife. These include at least three areas:
- We have the risk of physical trauma of the disease’s impact on our health
- We have the financial trauma of the effect the crisis has on our ability to earn
- And we have the psychological trauma of being effectively locked in our own homes
Whilst some of might feel the adverse effects more than others, not least because of our triggers, we can help ourselves.
What causes the trauma response during the COVID crisis?
There are a number of pre conditions for trauma, boxes that must be ticked if you like, that need to be present for us to experience trauma.
- Lack of control – the definition of trauma is an event, experience or situation where we feel helpless and out of control. A situation with high levels of unpredictability or uncertainty where we feel powerless.
- Immobility – in a truly traumatic situation (think of rape) our physical actions have no effect. Our nervous system is naturally aroused to fight, flee or feign death/faint. But these actions have no effect (whatever we do the rapist overcomes us). We lose our physical sense of agency.
- Loss of connection – in the absence of an attacker, extreme loss of connection alone can result in trauma. Think of the torture experiences of isolation. As humans we are wired for connection and need some degree of it to sustain life.
- Numbing or spacing out – if we reach this point in a traumatic experience we are quite lost. Again we have lost our sense of agency and passivity has taken over (this can also be the experience of events like rape). This passivity is very bad for us. We might experience this as endless watching of TV or social media. But it can be a sign we are going into a trauma response.
- Loss of time – trauma steals our ability to be in the present moment. We have literally gone elsewhere. We have certainly left the here and now of our body. And are lost in the past triggers or future fears. We may find that we literally lose chunks of time.
- No sense of safety – particularly if we have previous triggers (unconsciously) coming up, we can react in a very ‘disorganised’ way. This means we can be ‘all over the place’ and even react in violent or other excessive ways. We can react and do things that we would not normally do and these actions may serve to make us even less safe.
- Loss of sense of future – in trauma we feel that our future has shrunk or disappeared. This disempowers us further.
How to cope with trauma and maintain our resilience
If we let ourselves sink into the trauma response, we won’t be able to cope. It is important to know that trauma is as much of a response from our body as from our mind. We might think of the experience of trauma as a ‘natural response from our body to a highly unnatural event’. However if we don’t take action to mitigate these effects we will remain even more vulnerable.
Here are some things that really work to help you cope during this time:
- Order and routine – create schedules and some routine in your life. Have things to look forward to. A daily yoga class, a family meal (do it virtually if you are on your own!). Create a calendar and put some order into your day – get up a 9am to do some guided breathing or meditation, have lunch at a certain time, and your daily exercise. Try to make things different on the weekend so that you are maintaining some boundary between week days and weekends.
- Take effective physical action – remember the TEA model which I have taught? These actions are what we can do with our bodies (and our breathing). Certain actions can help counteract the loss of agency. And they can also help immensely with self-regulation. By standing up, moving we are sending signals to our self that we can stand up and take action to help our situation. Grounding and physical movement can be a very effective tool to mitigate trauma. Other mindfulness and breathing practices can engage the vagal nerve and parasympathetic nervous system to calm our arousal response. And do things: move, make music, make things – it gives you back your sense of agency. It counters the passivity which takes away all choice.
- Stay connected – make efforts to stay connected with those around you. Don’t wait for others to initiate, but make contact yourself. And texting or messaging or social media is not enough. We need to hear another’s voice, see their faces and facial expressions. So take time for face time, online chats and online calls. The tools are out there and free. Of course, if you are living with someone, get as many hugs as you can!
- Connect with yourself – time stops in trauma. Trauma steals the present moment and we feel that we are stuck in something that will last forever. Use guided practices to connect with your body, to re-learn that the here and now of your body is safe. Such practices help you to learn to move your awareness and notice that things do change. You can learn to be with whatever is there, tolerate discomfort and move through it.
- Understand what makes you feel safe – is it a certain type of music? Or being around your animals? Or wrapping yourself in your favourite sweater? Take some time to become aware of what resources you have. In the midst of the trauma response, we feel unsafe in our own bodies. So we need to have resources on tap to take us out of that. Cuddles with your pet or loved one can help. Equally important is having a safe place in your own home. This is somewhere that you can withdraw to where no one else is allowed to disturb you. If you don’t have a separate room, it could simply be a chair. You just agree the rules with the others in the house – ‘if I am sitting on this chair (or go into this room) you are not allowed to disturb me.
I hope these tips have been helpful. Please join my Embodied Living – Coping with Covid group to experience practical sessions to help with all of the above and build your own resources to cope with trauma.