In a time when I have been speechless, my colleague, Erin Ramsey-Tooher, puts words to what I want to say. This is a trauma we are living through, it will and does impact us, and we will all have the capacity to heal when this is over. And it will end. I am grateful to Erin for putting together some thoughts on how Covid has traumatized us and she graciously leaves us with some suggestions for how to cope. Erin is a psychotherapist in the Boston-area who specializes in the treatment of trauma. – Rachel Stanton
Life in These Times – How Tips from Trauma Work Can Help Us Through
It’s November 2020, and we’re nine-plus months into pandemic life. For many of us, we’ve become adept at Zoom and filling out health screenings or having our temperatures checked before we enter a doctor’s office. We’ve learned what 6 feet feels like, have used more hand sanitizer than ever before, and probably even have a preferred brand and style of face mask. Some friends and I have begun to refer to life in 2020 simply as “These Times.” For so many of us, 2020 has been a year of grief, loss (on so many levels), and newness.
As a trauma therapist, I can’t help but bring my theoretical lens to the experience of COVID, which has led me to begin framing life in These Times as a collective experience of trauma – one we all are traveling through and living with together, albeit of course in our own individually expressed ways. As I write, I’m mindful that my privilege has protected me from some of the most challenging outcomes of life in the COVID era, and that for so many folks – for example, people who are low-income, living in shelter, or who were already struggling with food insecurity – day to day safety has been severely compromised. We’d also be remiss not to name COVID’s disproportionate impact on communities of color. In naming COVID as a collective trauma, we can hold the principle of “both/and.” While acknowledging that the trauma of COVID affects us all differently, we can simultaneously own our own “hard,” even if it feels it pales in comparison to someone else’s.
So – how is living in These Times a collective trauma? Judith Herman, MD, in her book Trauma and Recovery, wrote that trauma “overwhelm[s] the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.” Trauma can threaten our sense of safety – physical, emotional or psychological – and early-stage trauma work often revolves largely around (re)establishing a person’s sense of being safe. In These Times, though, truly feeling safe can feel out of reach. We may wonder if it’s safe to send our kids to school, to go to the grocery store or get takeout, to visit the doctor when we need to, or even to be out in nature. Luckily, we know more about COVID and how it spreads now than we did back in March, and have a better idea of what can help keep us and those around us safe (hello, masks!). Still, our sense of safety can feel threatened when our ability to keep ourselves safe feels outside our control, to use Herman’s words.
Here’s an example: where I live, playgrounds had been closed for a few months early in the pandemic. I was a bit reluctant to go when they opened back up, but slowly began to feel more comfortable as I ventured out – masked – with my 3 small kids. One morning, I was pushing my 3 year-old on the swing when what felt like a large group of kids from a summer camp ran up and surrounded us, asking for a turn. They weren’t all wearing masks, and felt way too close to me for comfort. I panicked, grabbed my child and quickly walked away. In hindsight, I can contextualize my response as a flight response. My body thought, this isn’t safe! run!, and sent me a strong message to get away as quickly as possible. Was the threat real? Knowing what I know now, I’d say probably not; we weren’t that close for that long, we were outside, and I know that my mask and my daughter’s mask provided us some protection, too. But in the moment, it felt real. My nervous system understood the interaction as threat. And I had to do a good bit of work – both in the moment and after – to help myself feel more regulated and to re-establish my sense of safety and control.
Herman also writes that trauma affects the systems of care that help us with connection and meaning, and this feels particularly relevant in These Times. Graduations, weddings, baby showers, employment, spending holidays with family, gathering in person to grieve the loss of a beloved, or even being at the bedside of a dying family member – COVID has robbed us of so much. And while the bigger losses sometimes are easier to name, the little losses count, too. My oldest daughter was set to begin kindergarten this fall. Instead, she spends a few hours each day communicating with her teachers and classmates on a computer we have set up in the corner of our dining room. I teared up in Target when I came across the “You’re Going to Kindergarten!” cards on the endcap of the aisle back in September. I knew it paled in comparison to what some people were carrying, and yet the loss of in-person kindergarten also felt like something I needed to grieve.
So – what’s to be done? If trauma theory can help us understand and name life in These Times as a collective trauma, can it also offer us some hope for healing? As a trauma therapist I’m probably biased, but I’d offer a hearty “yes.” Here are a few suggestions:
Tend to the body. We experience, carry and hold our trauma in our bodies, and it’s through our bodies that we heal. When we can create pockets of safety, we can help our nervous system begin to regulate, and in turn we start to feel better. Think about what’s worked for you in the past – maybe it’s yoga, a living room dance party, walking or running, grounding practices, or some guided meditation with deep breathing. How might you work those into your These Times routines? And consider if there are new practices you might try on; I found this podcast on burnout and completing the stress cycle incredibly insightful. Spoiler: both a jog and a 20-second hug with a trusted partner are incredibly effective in down-regulating an activated nervous system!
Find connection in new ways. Positive social interaction matters, and can be another cue to our bodies that we’re safe. If the Zoom fatigue is feeling real – and oh, do I get that! – consider other ways to connect. Lately I’ve been finding that I love talking to my sister on the phone while out for a walk, and I cherish the brief interactions I have with our neighbors who just got a new puppy. Even seemingly “fluffy” interactions, like chatting about the weather or giving a compliment to the person working the checkout at the grocery store, can help – so don’t discount this if you live alone or otherwise are feeling like you have limited social support.
Gratitude practice. If it feels accessible to you, listing out a few things you feel grateful for each day can be mood-altering and help us maintain perspective. While it may sound fluffy or cute, there’s real science showing that a daily gratitude practice can actually alter our brains. I just made a “Thankful Turkey” craft with my small kids and found the things they were grateful for – like penguins, baby polar bears, and a toy dinosaur – heart-warming. Truth be told, their gratitude helped cultivate my own. Who isn’t thankful for baby polar bears, after all?!
Seek support through therapy. Cliché but true – life in These Times is unprecedented and challenging, and we all deserve support. A skilled therapist can help you attune to your body, teach you new skills to regulate the nervous system, and serve as a positive point of contact as we all go through these choppy waters together. Telehealth is a safe, convenient and effective way to get support, so consider reaching out for a consultation; you don’t have to go through These Times alone.
Brown, B. (Host). (2020, October 14). Brené with Emily and Amelia Nagoski on Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-emily-and-amelia-nagoski-on-burnout-and-how-to-complete-the-stress-cycle/
Herman, J. (1992) Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – from Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, New York: Basic Books. pg. 33.