It’s been distressing me so much to see people blaming themselves or thinking something is wrong with them for feeling emotionally crappy these days.
Most people I know–women business owners I work with as well as colleagues and friends–have been scratching their heads and saying to themselves:
“I’ve just spent the last 18 months doing nothing and seeing no one. Why do I feel so stressed out and burnt out? What is the matter with me? I must be experiencing burnout.”
But it’s not burnout, it’s the impact of pandemic trauma.
According to the Canadian Association of Mental Health (CAMH), Canada was already in the midst of a mental health crisis, prior to COVID-19.
The pandemic has both magnified and added to this crisis.
50% of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began (CAMH).
60% of adults reported worsened mental health conditions as a result of the pandemic, according to a report compiled by Sanctus in the UK.
In addition to the “health” pandemic, there is a shadow pandemic: the long tail of mental health issues that will endure well beyond the “end” of the pandemic itself. (I put “end” in quotation marks because there will not likely be a clear end—something that has a negative impact on mental health that I address further on in this post.)
Furthermore, COVID impacts—physical, mental and emotional–have disproportionately affected historically underrepresented groups.
It’s important to note that this is the case with any adversity. If you’re vulnerable, you’re going to be more negatively affected.
What is the point of sharing these gloomy statistics?
I want to you to know that if you’re struggling, it’s with good reason, and you’re not alone.
Mainly we are overwhelmed
• We are depleted. The past 18 months of pandemic stress and trauma have exhausted our resources.
• It’s as if we are at the end of a double marathon. We need recovery time but the pressure is to be “back to normal.”
• We are still facing uncertainty and other threats.
• Having more options as things open creates a burden of choice.
• Having to constantly make choices amongst the many new ones available now, and in the context of the many changing variables, causes decision fatigue.
• We can also experience analysis paralysis. More choices can be overwhelming. And we don’t have a way to know which choice is the right one.
• This pandemic will not have a clear ending. There will be many shifts and changes, and many different kinds of endings, resulting in a long transition. But the transition will not be back to the old, but into an as-yet-unclear new. Long transitions are difficult. They are disorienting. The ongoing cognitive work of dealing with the novelty and threat of transition is mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting.
• There will not be a clear end and therefore no opportunity to celebrate survival, yet this kind of ritual is essential for the nervous system to understand so it can begin to restore itself. It needs to experience the completion of the stress cycle somehow. Without that, we struggle, and the psychological and emotional stress continues.
This pandemic was trauma: too much, too fast, alone
I believe that making sense of things, and naming what’s happening, alleviates stress.
One of the things I believe it is important to name is that even if you were not directly affected by COVID, as a human living in a time of the global pandemic, it can be traumatizing.
Too much, too fast
There is the initial shock, followed by additional betrayals, losses and violence. One of the primary hallmarks of trauma is the overall feeling in our brain and body of “too much, too fast.”
Even more important in the pandemic context is the fact that the individual and the collective are interconnected. The trauma hallmark of “too much, too fast” is being reflected back to us, and thus intensified, by the instability in the larger world.
In addition, it’s important to be aware that our nervous systems evolved when we lived in small communities. They were never intended to cope with the intensity of distress on a global level.
We are also deeply alone in this trauma experience of too much, too fast.
Most obviously, it has isolated us from our social supports and many of our socially-based stress-relief and self-care strategies. We have been literally isolated. And isolation is well-known and documented as a determinant of health.
For those of us who have never experienced the kind of emotional exposure involved in a global event of this magnitude (unlike relief and international development works, for example), there is no map, and we have no support system. We are alone with the distress and threat.
Additional issues experienced in shutdowns
• Loss of control: when someone else is calling the shots, even when it’s for our safety, it’s a loss of control. Autonomy is a key universal human need and to be deprived of it is another hallmark of trauma.
• Confrontation with death: if you were sick and afraid for your life, or afraid that you would experience grave bodily harm, you confronted your mortality. If people you knew were in that situation, you confronted death as a possibility in your life experience. If you knew someone who died, you were affected by that. Even if you weren’t directly affected by COVID, still the threat of death is “out there” and you are confronted with it. This is disturbing to your mental health no matter how you look at it.
• No routine and no novelty: Human brains are built for routine plus novelty and both of those have been disrupted under COVID. Our routines are monotonous instead of comforting and the novelty, instead of being fun, is shocking and upsetting. Again, it adds up to mental and emotional distress, and in the end that has an effect on your body.
What trauma does
Your most primal survival systems are operating on overdrive. Your organism is mounting safety responses in its best attempt to enable you and your loved ones to survive.
· increased startle response
· sleep disturbance
· appetite change
· digestive challenges
· unpredictable shifts from high energy to deep lethargy
· Your thinking may be disorganized.
· You may be forgetful.
· Your emotions may be volatile.
· You may feel numb.
Two categories of responses
One way to start understanding and making sense of what is happening is to think in patterns and categories. Our human stress responses to pandemic trauma can be thought of in two categories.
Numbness and Shutting Down: freeze, collapse, flight
One way our human organism seeks safety is to “get away” from the danger.
It can do this in a variety of ways.
The concept of languishing (an emotional state that’s not at diagnosable, clinical levels of poor mental health, but neither are you flourishing) made the rounds in the spring. It’s not inaccurate, but as a trauma professional, I think it is only part of the story.
Certainly, without the conditions needed to thrive, no organism does well. Think of a plant under sub-optimal conditions. It grows, but not as fast nor as tall. It may not flower, or if it flowers, it may not fruit. It isn’t dead but it’s not flourishing either.
In our case, because of pandemic trauma, and because we are humans (not plants) we experience a host of other symptoms beyond simply not flourishing:
• Low mood
• Lack of motivation
• Easily distracted
• Sleepy, confused
Anxiety, fear, panic and hyperactivation: fight
Another way our human organism seeks safety is to “fight” the danger.
Hypervigilance is the term for an over-active stress response. Under pandemic conditions, threats are everywhere. This continued sense of exposure to threats – and potential threats – generates hypervigilance.
Media (social and otherwise) reinforce the idea there are multiple threats but don’t provide a context to sort and prioritize. Therefore it’s hard to know what we need to know and what we need to act on (or not).
We try to create safety for ourselves by avoiding what we perceive to be dangerous. This makes our “world smaller.” This is an effective temporary solution but over the long term can lead to chronic anxiety and phobias.
If the threat is something we can’t easily address with constructive action, the threat response energy can’t be discharged. This creates a loop of anxious feelings, thoughts, and over time, beliefs.
Social anxiety and health anxiety
Over the last year, our nervous systems have become accustomed to having less contact with people, and have also been reshaped by that.
Over and over again, we hear that being around others isn’t safe.
The social contract has changed. We don’t know what other people expect of us, or even what we expect of ourselves.
You might be experiencing the kind of anxiety that relates to specific situations, like worrying about being social now, or finding you are more anxious about your health overall.
Generalized anxiety or tension
The ongoing environment of threat leads to a general sense of diffuse anxiety and/or mental, emotional and physical tension.
Our organisms are constantly in threat-readiness mode, making us feel anxious and tense in our minds, emotions and bodies.
Healing under pandemic trauma
It’s important to realize that, because what you’re experiencing is a normal response to abnormal conditions, there is no “cure” for, or getting rid of, the symptoms.
Rather, I invite you to think about how you can promote healing.
One significant step you can take to support yourself (and others) is to approach your limited capacity in a more realistic and compassionate way. Here’s how:
It is helpful to remember that, under threat situations such as a global pandemic, the mammalian part of your brain is tracking danger and sending physiological signals throughout the body to prepare us to respond when to the psychological threat—because that’s its job. But it is emotionally, mentally and physically fatiguing and the high demand diminishes our capacity.
Acknowledge: My capacity is diminished.
Validate: No wonder I’m having a hard time!
Remind yourself: My nervous system is prioritizing its most primal behaviours. It’s trying its best to protect me.
Note that anything even mildly arousing to the nervous system can be perceived by your organism as a threat that needs a response.
Remember that on the extra hard days, this is even more true.
Validate: “No wonder I have a short fuse and/or am “overly” emotional. Look at all that’s happening in the world and in my life.”
Take things one moment at a time
It is challenging to connect with and hang onto your CEO-self right now because you (and we) are still actively in the experience. Taking things one step at a time, one moment at a time, can help reduce overwhelm.
This is easy to say and sometimes tough to do when you’re distressed so you might also want to consider asking for help from a trusted other.
Consider asking your body what it needs to feel safe(r) or more comfortable in the moment
You might like to do some journaling, in an imaginary back-and-forth conversation with your “body,” or with the non-thinking or non-logical part of yourself.
It might take some time to get going, and it might feel weird at first, but you might find that eventually, you get some clues about what might be helpful to soothe and nourish your mind, body and spirit in this moment.
There may not be much you can do about the global problem, but you can support your own healing in this moment so you can continue to be a resource for yourself and those who matter to you.
When you are resourced, you are able to think more clearly, and access better problem-solving. You might find that when you are resourced, you can come up with solutions that are more wider-reaching.
For some people, the concept of safe is not a helpful one, so you might instead ask yourself, “How can I help myself feel more comfortable in this moment?”
Complete the stress cycle
In order to relax, our organisms need to “know” the danger has passed. But as you may have experienced, words don’t often do the trick. Saying to yourself, “Relax!” or “There’s nothing to worry about.” Doesn’t really work.
Completing the stress cycle by sending your organism “it’s OK” messages through experience is a key to resilience and healing. The three principles of soothe, discharge and nourish can give you ideas of ways you can do that.
Here are some other factors to consider and preventative tips when looking at how to recover from an exhausted and wiped out nervous system and body.
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