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Reducing the Power of Trauma: How Not to Let COVID-19 Win

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

By Dr. Douglas L. Anderson, Psy.D

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, an expert in understanding and treating trauma, recently made a short video for therapists to help us address the impact of COVID-19 on the psychological and relational health of us all.  He noted how what we are facing with this pandemic is creating a number of preconditions of trauma that we must attend to in order to maintain our psychological and relational health.  I have briefly summarized the preconditions and a way or two that we can respond to each of these preconditions in order to minimize the impact of our current health crisis.

The lack of predictability generates anxiety and disrupts our ability to make good decisions and feel confident in those decisions.  People are working from home or working in all sorts of new ways.  Routines have been thrown for a loop.  It is important that you create a schedule for yourself, control what you can control, and maintain routines in this “novel” situation. 

Immobility is not healthy for us.  The current encouragement to stay home and to avoid being out and about can lead to significant immobility.  We literally move less, and that is a problem.  But this is something we can easily address, especially as we experience warmer weather.  Get outdoors and walk.  Or get online and join an online yoga group.  Any time we get moving we improve our ability to manage the stress hormones that run a muck during times of crisis.  So get moving!

This period of social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations is contributing to the loss of connection for all of us.  For those of us who believe we are a product of creation, we like to think of humanity as having been made for relationship.  We are born related and relating.  Although we are individuals, we are always individuals in relationship with others.  As van der Kolk indicates, “We are collective creatures.”  Put simply, we need each other.  So reach out.  Make use of the manifold apps that allow us to not just talk to our friends and loved ones, but that allow us to see them as well.  It isn’t perfect, but it is much better than a lack of contact.  For example, I still have breakfast with a friend once a week, but my friend is in his home and I am in mine, and we connect on Zoom.  It may seem strange to do this at first, but it quickly becomes a comfortable and normal way to be together. 

Sometimes, when under significant stress, we may numb out or space out.  We have all heard about how we can respond to stress with a fight, flight, or freeze response.  This is kind of a freeze response, a situation where we go into a limbo mode of sorts and get mired in the stress swamp.  The problem this primarily causes is that we lose agency.  We talk about humans as agentic beings.  That is, we have the ability to make choices, to be agents of action in our own lives, to make decisions on our own behalf.  But numbing out and spacing out remove agency.  One of the important things you can do to avoid this is develop a keen awareness of yourself and of your body and what you are experiencing.  The resources in mindfulness abound online.  Be thoughtful about best resources, but go looking and discover ways to improve your own sense of self, your own self-awareness.

One of the things I have heard commonly in recent weeks is people asking “what day is it?”  Stress has a way of causing us to lose a sense of time and of sequence.  I encourage you to take a few minutes several times a day to enter a thoughtful, meditative mode.  Notice your body and how it feels.  Notice where it is in space.  For example, you could be sitting down and say to yourself, “I am in this chair, I am in this space, I am aware of my surroundings, I am here, I am here right now, I accept myself being in this place at this moment in time, and I am able to make decisions about what I will do.”  If you are a person of faith, your spiritual tradition can be helpful as well, and you might add that “the Creator is here with me, right here, right now, right here in this space, with me and loving me in this moment as I make decisions about what I will do.”

A health crisis like we are in also contributes to a loss of safety.  And rightly so.  We know this virus causes a quite severe illness for a good number of those who contract it, and we know that it leads to death for a number of people as well.  It is right and good to be fearful and anxious about your own safety.  However, we don’t want this to have complete control of us.  You want to discover and make use of those activities that bring you comfort.  One of the best ways to do this for many of us is to listen to music we love.  Even as I am typing this blog I am listening to music.  A Bon Jovi album struck my fancy earlier, and now I am listening to a group called Chase.  They go back a ways – think 1972 – and they are still worth finding if you like rock and lots of brass.  Music ministers to us, distracts us, gets different parts of our brain to kick into gear, and tends to reduce our insecurities and fears.  Many also find great comfort in prayer, by taking walks, making use of relaxation techniques, engaging in pleasurable hobbies and activities, and so on.  Do what works for you.

One more thing.  In the midst of crises we sometimes lose our own sense of meaning or purpose.  I have three words for you to consider.  First, connection.  Get connected to others in safe and wise ways.  Second, love.  Make sure you give and receive love.  This is related to connection of course.  Third, service.  One of the best ways to stay connected and to give and receive love is to serve.  Find ways to serve others during this time of national health crisis and you will both benefit others and yourself.

We have heard it many times now, and I hope we keep hearing this – we will get through this together.