A month ago we were in a collective panic, denial, fear – our supermarket shelves were empty and people’s sense of anxiety and fear had escalated to an all-time high; worry about health, loved ones, jobs and finances, there was so much confusion about how serious things really were and how long restrictions would be in place. As the weeks have passed, we have begun to get used to the new ways of living. Some of us have extra time on our hands whilst others can only manage a sigh while the kettle boils in between work and childcare.
We have used this extra time for crafting, baking, self-care, exercise – whatever makes you feel good and takes your mind from the news. This is wonderful. There are also people who are struggling to find their balance, those who are feeling too anxious, or simply too empty, to do anything much at all. The days seem to blur into each other. This is a natural response to an unprecedented situation. It is natural, you are okay.
In among pictures of banana bread I have seen a quote, along with various memes doing the rounds. “If you don’t come out of this with a new skill, you never lacked time, you lacked discipline”. You may have shared it, maybe it validated your efforts in how you have been managing this situation. I invite you now to critically analyse this as it is damaging to so many people – probably including people you love, and perhaps, even yourself. This possibly well-intended quote shows no understanding of trauma, collective trauma or trauma responses at all. It is so disconnected to the panic that cleared the supermarket shelves only a few short weeks ago. It is disconnected to reality of grief, loss, confusion that is within so many hearts right now. It is careless and ill-considered. More than that it is simply untrue.
As a coach I help people to overcome the inner emotional barriers that prevent them from achieving their goals. It is almost never because they do not have time, it is almost always emotional. To say that you are lacking discipline is careless and uncompassionate. It is inconsiderate to those who are watching their loved ones go off to work as key-workers, or people with vulnerable and sick loved ones. Of course those people have high levels of anxiety and may be feeling too anxious to use their time learning a new skill. The problem is not your lack of discipline. The problem is that emotional issues are escalated in times of trauma and stress. Do not let a careless quote shame you into thinking you should be doing more. This fear is not in our minds, it is a reality and most of us are finding the updates on the failures of key workers having no access to basic PPE to protect them, and those workers subsequent deaths overwhelming. The people we read about who have died are real, they have friends and family who loved them. We are in a collective crisis and it is OK to feel that, it is also OK to avoid that if it is too much for you to think about. It is not OK to shame people for their trauma responses. It is not OK to tell employers that anyone who is not “getting on with it” is lazy or undisciplined. In these unprecedented times, we need compassion, understanding and awareness of how people respond to trauma differently.
Our trauma responses are triggered when we perceive a direct threat. COVID-19 is a direct threat, but your body may not know how to respond, regardless it has released hormones via your sympathetic nervous system to help you to defeat this threat. But how can you defeat something you cannot see? How do you defeat something you do not have the medical equipment to defeat? What happens to our hormones now we cannot use them? They stay in our bodies and the more stress we feel, the more we start to feel the cumulative stress of it in our bodies and in our behaviour. Our trauma response continues.
We have all heard of fight, flight, freeze or flop. How does this apply to our current global crisis? Many of the fighters will be filling their time, feeling productive – they know they cannot control the outside but they can choose how to use their time. It may not be the case for everyone who is doing this, but if this was your first day in quarantine, I invite you to think about how you have previously reacted to stress or grief? Have you always found ways to take action? Have you always pushed yourself to achieve something? Perhaps your trauma response is to fight.
For those who are feeling trapped inside their houses, needing to escape, struggling to abide by quarantine/self-isolation, filling up your time with anything and everything to keep busy, perhaps your response tends to be to flee from trauma.
Finally, for those of you who are feeling overwhelmed, or feeling nothing at all, you may be ‘numbing out’ or dissociating, you are at the heart of why I am writing this. What you are going through is normal, and yet often those who have the freeze/flop response can often feel frustrated or disappointed that you don’t feel able to “do more”. I hope that understanding your trauma response to this global crisis is some comfort to you. Your reaction is natural, normal and you are not alone. However, it is important to say that should you find yourself in a place where you cannot function, there is help out there for you. I cannot recommend reaching out to a professional enough.
For anyone who has experienced trauma before this crisis (which is actually most people but that’s another post) you may find that you are experiencing heightened trauma responses. It is important to reach out to trusted loved ones for comfort, and it may be advisable to speak to your manager if you are finding your trauma is preventing you from functioning. What you are responding to is real, what you are feeling is normal but if it is overwhelming, there is help out there for you.
If you still don’t think you are experiencing trauma then I ask you, have you been experiencing any of the following;
- Are you drinking more alcohol, or using other substances more than a month ago?
- Are you feeling hyper-vigilant when leaving the house? Are you getting annoyed or feeling panicky when people are walking too close to you? Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Are you feeling empty, avoiding feeling anything or unable to be tentative or emotionally intimate?
- Has your sex drive changed?
- Are you feeling heightened anger, guilt, or shame?
- Are feeling sad, down or hopeless?
- Are your views of others or the world more negative?
We do not always respond to trauma in the same ways we have done before, but we do have patterns that will influence how we will respond. You may be dealing with it is a way that you don’t usually, or have not before. That is OK too, you have not had this experience before and so your body and mind is reacting in the way it believes will keep you safe and protected. There is no right or wrong in how we respond, we simply are responding.
I hope this post helps people to recognise and understand each other’s trauma responses and helps us to be kinder to each other. No response is wrong, no one is “failing”, we are all just different. If all you did in this quarantine was to try to breathe (or eat!) through your anxiety, you are doing enough. You are doing your best. Don’t let any quote on the internet tell you otherwise.
I hope we can all leave this quarantine period feeling stronger for the love and compassion we can give to others. In the same movement of gratitude for clapping for our carers and key workers, I hope we can extend that compassion to others.
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