Helping yourself during the Pandemic
As a trauma specialist I wanted to offer some insight and guidance to anyone who might resonate with it during this trying time. Take what is helpful to you and leave the rest.
If you are feeling out of sorts right now, that is appropriate. Sometimes just the knowledge that our feelings are valid is soothing to our system.
For many of us, and in particular for trauma survivors, the current pandemic is triggering our past traumatic content to the surface. Common metaphors and parallels abound, though each persons reaction is still as unique as their own life story. Powerlessness, hopelessness, feeling chaotic, having difficulty with transition, feeling fear, panic, dread, depression, anxiety, grief responses, overwhelm, feelings of abandonment, isolation, loneliness, victimization, avoidance, denial, anger, irritability, a sense of intrusion, disruption…these and many more are all common feelings and responses. The stress of now is both acute, happening in the moment, and also likely connected to other instances in which we have felt the same way. We are a collection of our life experiences and they inform how we react to and view the world.
You might spend some time thinking about, or better yet, do some writing and ask yourself: When have I felt this way before? And just see what thoughts, feelings and memories emerge. This exercise is not so we can dwell in all the terrible things that have happened to us, it is so we can have awareness that potentially, what we are feeling is both NOW and also THEN. Keeping some kind of mindful awareness of the root causes of your triggers is important for keeping your cognitive functioning online during a time such as this. Meaning, it helps you be able to think more clearly and at the very least, acknowledge where you are at and why.
You might further do some type of creative process to discharge some of this energy. Creating an artwork, music, writing a story, or even expressing emotion through physical movement such as dance, or yoga can help.
If you are recognizing you feel traumatized, the most important thing is to engage in activities that allow your nervous system to settle. Do not task yourself with feeling calm, or serene or jumping to a place of feeling safe, secure and at your usual baseline. That is too big a task and it will likely just create more pressure and dissonance inside.
Your body knows how to calm down. You have been calm before. You can be again. It might be a good idea to repeat that to yourself: “My body knows how to feel calm”, as a reminder to your mind and the rest of you that this is possible and that there is some amount of choice or agency you still hold. Your body might enjoy a warm shower or bath, staring out the window and “zoning out” without thinking so much, watching whatever nature you can see, spending time in low light, or even the dark, or just laying somewhere comfortable and resting could help. Wearing clothes with soothing textures might feel nice. Think of when you have felt the most comfortable and try and find a way to bring something related to that into your current situation. Playing with clay or putty, or finding that stress ball someone gave you might feel good to your hands. Hanging out with your pets, having sex (if you want to and it feels safe), snuggling, these can all be helpful things to do if they are available to you. Simply noticing your feet and your lower extremities is helpful. Taking intentional breaths and noticing your breathing helps bring you back to your body and the present moment.
Play the 5 senses game: “What can I see, touch, taste, hear and smell in this moment? “Do this slowly and methodically and notice what happens and if the way you feel shifts. You can also help kids play this game or have a partner or friend ask about each of the senses one by one. You could do this alone or in person or over phone or video.
You might bounce in and out of feeling ok and then very not ok. This is normal. You need the mental and physical breaks, they help your system continue to function. You might feel it coming in waves, and that is ok and an appropriate response. Don’t task yourself with feeling “one way”. Think of this like surfing and your emotions and thoughts and body responses are the waves you are riding. If that metaphor doesn’t work, find one that does: skiing over hills, riding a rollercoaster, hiking to high and low elevations…give yourself some imagery for this journey that feels right.
Your mind likely needs breaks from feeling inundated and overwhelmed. Structured activities like board games, puzzles, knitting/crocheting, and crafts are soothing for your mind. Watching light or comedic programming can offset the seriousness and is helpful for trauma survivors. Reading a book might be a helpful distraction.
If mantras and meditations and affirmations aren’t working well for you, that is normal. Likely your nervous system is on overdrive, and I like to say "You cant jump the Grand Canyon”. When worried thoughts seem overwhelming, ask yourself what is the next most safe, calm, reasonable thought I can tolerate? It might be something like “For the next 5 minutes, it is probably safe to feel calm” and if thats all you can muster, thats perfect, it helps to just look for the next soothing thought your mind can believe. You will know a thought is helpful if it makes you feel calm to think it and you don’t notice much resistance to it.
It might be important to take breaks or set time limits for your interactions with the news media. While it is appropriate to stay aware and abreast of developments and the rapid changes that are occurring, you might find it helps to set a timer on your phone and limit your interaction. It is easy to become hypervigilant and compulsively interact with the information. It could be a trauma response to fixate on distressing information. Sometimes our minds do this as a way to manage anxiety and feel more in control, ironically. Brains like to feel like they know what’s going on, but our brains are not the only part of us that needs attending to. Our bodies and emotions also need our attention.
Notice how you feel when your encounter information. Much of information right now is not pleasant, and forcing your response to it to be pleasant, totally adapted and well adjusted is not a practical goal right now, so let that idea go. You keeping your awareness about you, and your experience, as much as possible will help you maintain.
There are many ways to use technology as a resource right now as well. If you have a therapist, see them virtually or via phone. Talk with friends and your support system. Join an online support group. Attend a 12-Step meeting online. Join an online exercise class, watch an online concert, listen to music, play a game, find a group doing something you are interested in online and join them.
Most importantly TAKE CARE WITH YOURSELF. You matter.