We are all experiencing trauma right now. Our nervous system knows we are facing a life and death threat, and is doing its job by alerting us to danger through fear, tight shoulders and catastrophic thinking. It activates our survival mechanisms of flight/ fight/ freeze/ fawn.
Our personal risk depends on many factors, including our general health and exposure to the virus. If we live in a crowded city, we are exposed more than someone in a rural area. We applaud the heroism of doctors and nurses who work to save lives knowing they will be exposed.
Shock or crisis trauma, sometimes called big T Trauma, happens in a terrifying event where a person experiences or witnesses a threat to their life or that of someone close to them. We easily see that events like this cause fear, hypervigilance, and that it takes time and treatment to heal.
Chronic trauma, or little t trauma, occurs repeatedly over a long period of time. Again, it is easy to see that physical, sexual and emotional abuse are traumatic. It might be more difficult to acknowledge and be sympathetic towards ourselves and others who experience emotional neglect or a lack of warm, caring connection.
The Covid-19 pandemic is big T Trauma, even though it is unfolding and worsening over weeks and months. It is a sudden radical shift in our safety.
Using our cognitive brain to analyze risk has limited usefulness because fear is felt and stored in our body and primitive brain.
These are all nervous system responses to the trauma of the pandemic:
- We have trouble sleeping. Our body is jacked up. We are irritable and edgy.
- We drink, overeat or zone out on Netflix.
- Some people will turn on the people they live with. Partners argue and domestic violence is increasing.
- Others refuse to acknowledge threat and continue to act like the pandemic is a hoax or that people are overreacting.
- People with unhealed trauma are also being flashed back to previous fear. Our nervous systems are not as resilient. We don’t trust people. We may already have felt isolated and physical distancing is making it worse. We used to go shopping, to the bar or out to eat with friends. Being alone, even though we know it is due to the pandemic, can feel personal, triggering core deficiency beliefs of being unlovable.
These are also ways people are responding:
- Walk more, get exercise and fresh air, eat healthy, make time to relax and sleep.
- Make the effort to connect with people by phone or video conference.
- Look for ways we can help. There is an outpouring of offerings on social media ranging from free online yoga classes to musicians performing to people checking in with their neighbors and picking up groceries for them.
- Connect within, journal about our experience, using the abrupt shift as a wake up call, looking for meaning in our life and alignment with our deepest values.
We are all traumatized right now. There are simple, effective ways to down-regulate our nervous systems as they respond to threat.
It helps to understand the basics of our trauma responses so we can be patient and reassuring with ourselves and others as we experience this elevated level of fear.
Include some healthier ways to self-soothe and don’t shame yourself for the cookies or zoning out. Let yourself rest and sleep.
Try to form an alliance with partners and children so that you can work together on getting through the next few weeks and months.
Yes, we have a nervous system and primitive brain that triggers survival responses and make it difficult for us to function well. We also have our higher level brain development, compassion, love, and our heart felt wish for all of us to be safe and happy. Nurture your resilience and strength through the practice below.