Updated: Nov 29, 2021
Shit is weird out there, right?
And no, it's not fake news, and you're not imagining it or making something out of nothing. What we're currently experiencing as a global community is a traumatic event the likes of which we've never before experienced.
According to the DSM-5, the current manual for the assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders, a traumatic event is defined as:
Any event that involves exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence that has the potential to be traumatic. Exposure may be direct, but may also be witnessed or indirect.
For the first time in many of our lives, we are staring exposure to harm, or even death, right in the eyeballs. The possibility of serious injury or death in ourselves or in the people we care about is very real, as is the horrifyingly sad news of how this is impacting our fellow humans around the world. This IS trauma, folks.
But here's where it gets even weirder: this trauma we're all experiencing is not a finite experience with well-defined beginning and ends; it's fuzzy and undefined around the edges, with lots of unknowns and likely long-term impacts we've not even begun to envision. It's also impacting every single one of us; it's a fairly equal opportunity threat.
How do you cope with trauma?
Depending on past experiences, learned or innate coping strategies and tools, and the resiliency resources available to us, different people respond in different ways. For many of us who already lug around traumatic baggage, this fresh threat has a sinister way of coaxing out of hibernation our well-hidden demons and exposing every raw trigger-nerve we have. If you're feeling out of sorts, sluggish, unmotivated, or, on the other end of the spectrum, jumpy, nervous, or even preoccupied, it makes total sense why that's happening: you're not broken, you're having a trauma reaction.
For others among us, in moments of high stress like this, we shine. We hunker down, become zen-like in our ability to strategize, remain focused and take care of business. We turn up the volume knobs on all of our resources and become the calm regulators of our social networks.
Many of us waver somewhere in the middle: sometimes catatonic or sobbing in the fetal position, and other times powerful and taking charge.
The experience of trauma impacts us in four primary ways:
Our bodies and minds are masterfully designed so that when under threat of life or death, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and goes on autopilot. In this flight-flight-freeze response, there is no place for thinking, so our high level thought processes are effectively turned down to low or off so our bodies can keep us safe. If you're finding yourself unable to think clearly, having memory glitches, or difficulty concentrating, that's a natural byproduct of a reaction to chronic or pervasive trauma. Chronic mental hyper-arrousal is taxing, and the flood of stress hormones required to sustain this heightened state suck the life out of our cognitive acuity. During seasons of chronic stress and trauma, your brain isn't gonna operate at peak performance until you can find effective ways to slow down your sympathetic nervous system response - give yourself some grace.
When we experience an acute trauma (like a car accident) our bodies have acute and typically finite symptoms. We may have wounds, broken bones, or injured muscle groups, but they will mostly heal in time. However when we're subject to ongoing or chronic trauma, our bodies will manifest the trauma in very different ways. In situations like this, where our bodies are on constant hyper-alert, tsunamis of adrenaline surging and cortisol at flood-level, we notice more chronic, pervasive physical symptoms. Many people I talk with identify gastric distress as the most dominant physical sign of chronic trauma reactions. Others among us may notice reduced quality of sleep, fatigue, tension headaches, and shoulders/neck tension.
Social withdrawal and isolation are no longer a luxury reserved for monks and extreme introverts. Even if you’re forced to leave your home for work or essential tasks like getting groceries or work, most opportunities for face-to-face contact, beyond the other humans in your household, are no longer options. This sucks, because as social beings, even the most introverted among us naturally crave community; it’s one of our foundational human drives.
Many of us used to fantasize about all the things we'd do, the hobbies and education we'd pursue, or the fitness we'd develop if we had the opportunity to isolate. But here we are having lost all interest in doing anything more strenuous than laying on the couch binge-watching Netflix and eating Ben & Jerry's straight out of the container.
None of us know what to do in a pandemic; none of us got the training manual or YouTube video on what the hell to do while in lock-down. And that's ok. There will be time enough to learn that new skill or read that classic novel when our new normal rolls around; right now it's ok just to take basic care of ourselves and our loved ones. If taking naps, playing Candy Crush, Tik-Toking till your eyes blur, or eating mac-n-cheese on repeat is what you need to cope, go easy on yourself. This is a season.... and it will pass.
Chronic exposure to pervasive trauma is like Disneyland for our emotions. They get to come out and play, in full volume and rowdiness, with all their friends....often at the same time! Profound sadness can flip on a dime and become punchy joy, grief holds hands and skips along with intense love, and worry and gratitude share the same breath.
If you're feeling like you're either completely numb and detached, filled with intense anger or panic, or if you find yourself vacillating wildly between some weird combination of all of these - you're not alone. The best tactic is to accept and validate your full emotional reality. Having big or wild feels means you're ALIVE, and right now, that's a really good thing.
Stay well, stay safe, and if you can, stay the fuck home!
If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1–800–273–8255 (TALK).
If you'd like additional support during this crisis, I am offering a variety of support services and I'd love to help.