Maybe for the first time in our lifetimes, we are collectively experiencing an actual threat of something over which we have absolutely no control.
One of the most profound and unrelenting feelings borne out of any traumatic situation is helplessness; no sense of personal agency and no ability to change the current situation.
When we are caught in trauma, we often dissociate or freeze and lose track of time. And, this feeling of helplessness can lead to feelings of lack of control in ourselves and our surroundings.
No doubt, the current pandemic crisis has raised varying levels of fear in almost all of us, and for those with trauma histories, feelings of helplessness, lack of self-agency, unseen lack of control, and predictability, may be even more compounded.
Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk is a trauma expert and author of the seminal book The Body Keeps the Score and labels our current pandemic crisis as the “pre-trauma condition” environment. There is the potential for long-term trauma exposure, which is the actual threat and uncertainty of our physical health because of a highly contagious virus that is undetectable for which there is no vaccine; our economic health due to loss of jobs, wages, and the current low probability of re-employment; and our psychological/emotional health due to chronic isolation, loss of social connection, and sense of loss of identity or purpose.
For those of us with a trauma history, these threats in every area of our life may be creating a traumatic reexperiencing, which can be incredibly overwhelming and render us feeling helpless and stuck. I am a clinical psychologist and one of the most common feelings my clients are experiencing in this current crisis is “lack of motivation.” But that is not it. It is helplessness. And, you do not need to have a trauma history to feel the impact of the profound and chronic stress and fear that COVID-19 has swiftly and intensely invaded our lives. (Adapted from the talk by Bessel Van Der Kolk.)
I would like to provide you with the three conditions that may lead to trauma or a reexperiencing of trauma during COVID-19 and ways to manage these risk factors.
1. Lack of Predictability.
Trauma creates a sense of loss of control in our environment and loss of time in our world because trauma overpowers us, leaving us unable to exert control over the current situation or predict what is to come in our future. For many trauma survivors, it is hard to plan for the future because they are so used to being in a chronic state of survival; the prefrontal cortex is dormant while the amygdala is activated.
For many of us, COVID-19 swept into our daily lives like a monsoon. Lives that were filled with routines, expectations, and rituals. Upended like the work of a cyclops. In its wake, we have been left with feelings of disorientation, shock, and helplessness—this is not about a lack of motivation. Creating a sense of future is important right now. Two ways to manage the feeling of unpredictability and regain some control over our daily lives are to:
a) Set a daily schedule, interspersed with consistent time anchors of activities. For example, I get up every morning at the same time and engage in the same rituals, which include hydration, yoga, and meditation. It gives me a sense of time and ritual in the morning as well as something to look forward to, an expectation. I may schedule in time anchors for when I eat lunch, walk my dog, Riley, and make the kids’ dinner.
b) We can create a future with phone call dates with friends, Friday movie night with kids, or try out a new recipe for Sunday night dinner. Right now, our world feels chaotic and unpredictable from one day to the next, so it is incredibly important to create order and structure within our own lives, as much as we can.
2. Body immobility.
Pulling from the feeling of helplessness, trauma also creates a feeling of lack of control within our physical bodies. Often when traumatized, we will physically freeze and emotionally dissociate from the trauma to survive. Over time, this may look like numbing out or being locked in a “trance” state. Tara Brach refers to them as “false refuges.” We all know those places we go to when our bodies are filled with overwhelming feeling, especially if we are chronically stressed. We may turn to food, overthinking, social media, Netflix, sex, porn, drugs, alcohol, or self-cutting.
And now with the mandated quarantine, we may feel even more trapped in our stressed out and overwhelmed bodies within the confines of our four walls, vying for space and privacy with others. It is crucial that we regain a sense of self-agency during this time of quarantine and immobility. A few ways to reconnect with our bodies and help them feel expansive, mobile, and safe are to:
a) Move the body in any way that feels good to you. This may be dance, stretching, yoga, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, running, walking, gardening/planting, cleaning, cooking, biking, and hiking. When we move our bodies, we reconnect with our breath and present sensations.
We regain a sense of control over how we move, when we move, what we feel, and where we want our limbs and feet to go, all with our own control. We take back control by reconnecting with our body and breath, knowing that we have the capacity to act, the opposite if helplessness, in order to heal. Along with control over our bodies and feeling safe, it is important for everyone living together to:
b) Have personal space in the home. We may designate for interrupted alone time (bathroom, bedroom, chair). To be able to retreat somewhere predictable and consistent is super important, like having a sanctuary where we feel safe and not bothered.
3. Feeling Unseen.
For many of us during this quarantine and social distancing mandate, we are spending most of our time with immediate family members, partners, roommates, or a small group of friends. And for many of us, we live alone and do not have daily physical contact with people. For those of us with trauma histories, the feeling of being unseen or not mattering may be intensifying right about now. We are social animals who need human connection to survive—physical, sexual, emotional, intellectual.
This self-isolation time may reinforce feelings of aloneness, unsafety, insignificance, and helplessness. And if our living situation contains high conflict, the stress and uncertainty and immobility of the pandemic may flare tensions, lead to arguing, dysregulation, and more feelings of unsafety. Now is the time to:
a) Create a safe and calm home. Rather than focusing on high expectations of one another and personal goals (immaculately clean house, completed schoolwork, self-improvement), we direct our energies to creating shared positive and joyful moments, such as watching shows or movies, board games, puzzles, telling stories, reading stories aloud, going through old photos, singing, drawing, playing music.
As a single working mother, I have let go of all (most) fears associated with my kids’ education, which has at least reduced those arguments. I trust the process and believe things will work out. And most importantly, realize it is beyond my control. We all need to be seen right now and feel like we matter, just for simply being who we already are. And, if we live alone now is the time to:
b) Make daily connections with at least one person by texting, audio files, emails, letters, saying high to passersby, video conferencing, and social media. Now is the time to cultivate self-soothing and self-nurturing habits. See Kristin Neff’s awesome and resourceful website.
Every little bit matters.
For many of us, these conditions seem doable. For many others, this time of COVID-19 is dangerous, and “intimate terrorism” (the preferred name to “domestic violence”) exists.
In China and Spain, emergency phone calls to domestic violence hotlines are rising, as much as 18 percent in Spain, 30 percent in France, 20 percent in Britain, since lockdown. And in the United States, around 2,000 calls per day are coming into the National Domestic Hotline. And given the economic downturn from the pandemic, many resources for people in abusive partnerships are unable to respond to the increased demand.
If you or know someone is at risk of domestic violence during this time, below are some resources:
National Domestic Violence Hotline 1.800.799.7233 (24-7)
National Sexual Assault Hotline 1.800.656.4673 (HOPE) (24-7)
StrongHearts Native Helpline 1.844.762.8483 (7 am-10 pm CT)
Trans LifeLine 1.877.565.8860 (9 am-3 am CT)
Deaf Hotline 1.855.812.1001 (24-7)
National Parent Hotline 1.855.2736 (M-F, 12 pm- 9am CT)
“We are not survival of fittest. We are survival of the nurtured.” ~ Louis Cozolino