My grandparents grew up during the Great Depression. It changed the way many people coped with life. Which reminds me of this current pandemic, how it’s affecting us, and my grandparent’s vacuum cleaner.
You see, after my grandparents’ funeral several years ago, my mother came across an old, heavy stainless-steel vacuum cleaner in their closet. Now, this thing was clearly built to last. But it was dinged up pretty bad, the cord was frayed, and the motor wasn’t very powerful.
Sitting right next to it was a brand new vacuum cleaner, still unopened in the original box. The receipt attached to it was dated about ten years previous. It was probably given to them as a gift. And if asked, I can hear what my grandmother would likely have said about why they never replaced their old stainless-steel wonder: “It’s a perfectly good vacuum cleaner.”
There’s that mindset, and I can’t help but imagine it is connected with their experiences during the Great Depression. As if it weaved its way through the fabric of the rest of their lives in small but noticeable ways. And I start to wonder how this global pandemic will affect our way of thinking, possibly for the rest of our lives. We don’t know how, but in small and distinct ways, it will define a part of us. But there’s one bit that troubles me.
The part that has me concerned is this low-level sense of unease that everyone (well, most everyone) seems to be living with lately. The majority of my patients have felt it but nothing quite fits when they’ve tried to express it in words. It’s a vague sense of underlying discomfort and isolation, much like a gradual, slow boil of angst, ennui, or weltschmerz. Even I’ve felt it and have wondered how best to describe it. It’s like living out of a suitcase: You feel slightly unsettled, vaguely unsafe, and never really a part of anything.
Essentially, this is trauma.
Preconditions for Trauma
You see, with the threat of COVID-19, the conditions for our psychological trauma are ripe:
- There’s an actual physical threat to our health and safety
- We can’t protect ourselves financially
- We’re paying a psychological toll by being in isolation from each other
It’s ironic to realize that there are not experts in this field. Remember, there hasn’t been a pandemic for over a century. As a result, what’s happening to each of us is highly personal. What we can do is to deal with this as we would other traumas. To do this, we need to examine the preconditions for trauma and tackle each part, one by one.
Lack of Predictability
The first precondition for trauma is a lack of predictability. Therefore, the straightforward solution is to organize our lives in as predictable a way as we can. In other words, we need to make schedules for ourselves and set an order for the day. Getting up at a certain time each day. Going to sleep at a specific time. Planning specific daily activities. And arranging to be in frequent contact with those that we care about using the phone or by video.
For example, I know that at 6:30 AM, I get up during the weekday regardless of when my first patient is scheduled. I always sit at the kitchen table in the morning, drinking a cup of coffee, watching people taking their walks outside, and planning my day. I know what time I eat lunch, and what options I will choose from. My wife and I go on a walk each evening and chat with people we come across at a distance. I read one chapter of my favorite novel each day. At 8:00 PM, I watch the next episode of Battlestar Galactica on Comet broadcast TV (so I can never skip ahead). I keep in texting and phone contact with friends and family, even if it’s just a smiley face emoji. One of the many hobbies I’m engaging in is tending and trying to grow plants and vegetables.
The goal is to live a life where we anticipate and predict our own lives so that we have something to look forward to. Create a schedule to overcome this sense of unpredictability that we live with. For example, sign up for and attend an online yoga class every morning at 9:00 AM. Or knowing that every day at noon, I’ll make my lunch, and possibly do a virtual lunch using video with a friend or family member. Essentially, having a routine. Where you know at 2:00 PM it’s time to clean the kitchen. Or at 6:00 PM, it’s time to watch that rerun of Baywatch you’ve always been meaning to get to.
To make something traumatic, you have to be stuck in a position where you cannot do anything about it. It’s like being paralyzed. To combat this, we have to move around, even if we can’t go outside and do the things we normally like to do. Planning for walks around the neighborhood. Going for a bike ride. Working outside in the garden (or planting one, even if you don’t have a yard). Deciding to take up birdwatching. It doesn’t really matter, as long as it gets you moving. We need to use our bodies to do something.
There is a danger with this, however. It has to do with activating our “Fight or Flight” reaction as we move around. During a global pandemic where we’re in isolation, “Flight” is not available to us. There’s nowhere to go. But “Fight” IS available. This puts us at risk of getting into some very destructive patterns of behaviors with the people around us. We can lose our temper, become angry, or in some dire circumstances, engage in domestic violence.
This means that we need to learn how to control ourselves, our emotions, our behavior and even our thoughts. If this is an issue, you need to calm down your relationship with yourself, and to literally get a grip on your own physiological reactions. Exercises or online classes involving breathing, yoga, mediation, or mindfulness can make a significant impact on this.
Important side note for victims of domestic violence
Loss of Connection
Trauma always involves a sense of not being seen, not being paid attention to, and not being heard. It’s terribly important for us to be in touch with other people. The 1918 Flu-Pandemic quarantine was profoundly lonely. Even with social distancing in place, make a dedicated effort for regular contact with your family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. Really look at each other in the face and talk to each other and get comfort from being seen by other people.
Don’t have these sort of relationships? Then make an effort to develop these relationships with your neighbors and the people you meet as you go on your anti-immobility walk (see items 1 & 2 above), and take the time to talk with them. This can be done even at six feet away. Certainly, some aren’t up for this and you shouldn’t take this personally (especially during a pandemic). But you’ll be surprised how much others want to talk. Keep expectations normal: You’re not going to make them into your best friend overnight, nor should you (safety first). But getting to know others casually is the first step.
Numbing & Spacing Out
It is very natural to want to numb ourselves when we are overwhelmed by the terrible things going on in the world. But remember the part about how we need to learn how to control ourselves, our emotions, our behavior and our thoughts? In our culture, the way we tend to do this is through drugs and alcohol. This should be considered a Bad Idea (TM), since numbing out and spacing out are part of the psychological triggers for trauma.
We need to be alive, mindful, and exist with a sense agency. To truly experience these things, we need to develop a friendly relationship with ourselves. As long as we don’t notice ourselves, we act like a chicken with his head cut off: We just run around like automatic creatures that responds to any input automatically with fear, anger or irritation.
Once you can observe what’s going on with yourself, you start being able to make choices. This is easier to do if you can notice and name things, as in, “This is what is happening to me / my body / my mind.” Finding words for your experiences is critical towards this (here’s a cheat sheet to get you started). It also helps to share these words you use to describe your feelings with others.
Notice which words resonate with what you are feeling. This will help you to better notice when you start spacing out, and prompt you to activate your body to feel alive. This is not mindfulness alone; it’s mindfulness with self-compassion.
Notice what words describe the feelings you have. Acknowledge them as you would if you were watching yourself from across the room. Don’t fight them; simply accept them and allow them to just “be”. See that these feelings are a way of managing the seemingly unbearable threat of COVID-19. Learning to tolerate these feelings is very important. Share with other people what you are experiencing.
Loss of Sense of Time
Not having a future can do this. When we get traumatized, we feel like it will last forever and we lose our sense of time. We need to activate our sense of sequences and time. It’s very important to be able to anticipate what is going to happen in the future.
When you’re traumitized, time stops and you feel like it will last forever. When you meditate, you notice uncomfortable sensations and thoughts. A very important part of dealing with this personal trauma is to live with an inner-sense that every moment is different from the next. We must have an internal sense of time changing.
Loss of Safety
We need to feel safe. Of course, we’re not safe during this pandemic. But that doesn’t matter: It’s critical that we set up safe situations for ourselves so that we can prevent this internal trauma trigger.
Explore your senses. Use touch, sight, sound, taste and smell. Touch and cuddle those that you love, or get a sense of touch inside your body even if it is only you that can make yourself feel safe. Listen to music that makes you feel calm. Bake something that reminds you of a smell of something from your fondest memories.
Give yourself space for safety, too. Everybody needs a place to which they can withdraw. If living with someone else, let them know that “that spot over there is my space”. Let them know that when you’re sitting there, they can’t talk to you. Tell them that this needs to be an agreement between the two of you.
Loss of Sense of Purpose
We need to have an identity. It’s very important to hold on to this and to do the things that affirm who we are. It doesn’t matter if this is something small or inconsequential on a grand scale; we need to know who we are and what we are living for.
You need to identify what your purpose is, without limiting yourself to existential purposes only. Maybe it’s to become the best hacky sack juggler. Perhaps you want to become an expert at baking soufflés. Or to come up with a good 30-day challenge for yourself. These don’t have to be life-long purposes; only purposes for now.
There’s a lot of information surrounding the pandemic available to us. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and triggered. TURN OFF the inputs of news and information on a regular basis. Remind yourself that there is a difference between seeking information and seeking reassurance as you read, watch, or learn more about the global pandemic.