Life in the time of coronavirus
We are all dealing with a collective trauma during this pandemic. Trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk tells us how to help ourselves manage the feelings the pandemic may be bringing up for us all in different ways. I have added my own ideas too, to create what I hope will be a useful list of ideas to address some of the feelings you might be struggling with.
Lack of predictability
We have lost our ability to predict what will happen next, the current rules about how to behave are constantly shifting, and ultimately we can’t predict when the pandemic will end. To help us regain a sense of predictability we can:
• organise our lives – make daily schedules for ourselves, e.g. when we are going to do some yoga, eat a meal at the same time as an online remote friend, arrange to meet with a friend for a socially distanced walk
• make frequent contact at certain times in the day/week with friends and family, plan meals, plan evenings so they look different to the daytimes
• put things in our diaries to look forward to
• create a calendar of connections activities online
At a time of trauma, there is a need to take action – but flight is not available at the moment, we are locked down and restricted, and so conflicts can increase. Stress hormones are generated to enable us to move, protect and take care of ourselves. In addition, we are meant to cook meals together, build houses, gather food, go to work etc. To help us manage these frustrating feelings we can:
• work on self regulation of these feelings of being restricted
• focus on controlling our emotions, behaviour and thoughts
• learn to calm ourselves
We can get a grip on our physiological reactions through yoga, tai-chi, chi-gong, breathing exercises, meditation, mindfulness, rather than turning to drugs and alcohol.
Lack of connection
When we are not moving in our usual social circles, and we’re not in the usual office or work environment, we can feel that we are neither seen nor heard. We are collective creatures – we don’t exist as individuals – and we need to shore up our visual connections with the people in our lives. When we cry we are supposed to get a response, and when we laugh someone is supposed to laugh with us – our emotions can be seen and shared. Sounds, facial movements and the synchrony and the rhythms between faces and voices keep us feeling alive. So we need to:
• organise online regular video calls with family, friends and work colleagues
• do activities together online, if that’s the only way to connect, e.g. eat family meals together remotely, play online games, dress-up for a special occasion, make music, dance and sing together
Numbing out and spacing out v mindfulness
Currently, we can be overwhelmed by the news, and we watch too much, possibly numbing ourselves with alcohol. To help us reconnect with ourselves, we can:
• learn to notice ourselves… to observe what is going on inside ourselves • start to develop a friendly relationship with ourselves – without this we are just reacting - with anger, fear, irritation
• start making choices once we can observe what’s going on inside
• tell someone else how you are feeling which helps us notice and name our feelings
• practise mindfulness and self-compassion
• see that angry part of ourselves and acknowledge what anger has done for us to survive – that anger has been a way of managing unbearable threat… try to share this with others
Loss of sense of time and sequences, loss of having a future
As mentioned earlier, we don’t know when this pandemic will end… there is a sense of timelessness – it feels like this will last forever. To help us manage this feeling, we can practise meditation.
Meditation may bring uncomfortable sensations and uncomfortable thoughts to the fore… notice them and then go back to your breathing. Then you notice that your thought has shifted to something else… time has passed. We are constantly shifting organisms. But keep focusing on the breath. A very important part of dealing with potential trauma is to live with an inner sense that every moment is different from the next… time does in fact pass as do our difficult sensations and feelings.
Loss of safety
Traumatised people feel unsafe in their bodies: they are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs, and, in an attempt to control these processes, they often come expert at ignoring their gut feelings and numbing awareness. They learn to hide from themselves. How can we feel safe in our own bodies again, which is essential for being in touch with ourselves and in synch with others? We can:
• touch, hug and cuddle someone we love, stroke and hold our pets
• think about what gives us an internal sense of safety and calm – it might be listening to music, reading a novel, having a bath, knitting, sitting in the garden…
• define where we can have some privacy, a special place to withdraw, and tell our loved ones, ‘That’s where you don’t talk to me.’ If it’s difficult to have privacy indoors, go out for a walk by yourself.
• practise yoga, tai chi, chi gong which can all help – yoga has especially been proven to be highly effective in helping us regulate feelings of anxiety and lack of safety
• practise self care – eat well, have good sleep hygiene, bathe regularly, dress properly for the daytime
• schedule – get up and go to bed at a similar time of the day and evening, make day and evening activities different, eat meals at regular times
• exercise – get outside, making a ritual out of a walk, a purpose… listen to something, music, podcast, have a snack, take a coffee, join friends for a socially-distanced walk or enjoy some peace and quiet by yourself (cardio exercise can separate you from your body, which is not useful here)
• reconnect with nature – find a local green space in which to spend time walking or sitting peacefully… take your book, listen to a podcast or music, or listen to the birds
• express your feelings in different ways – through art, poetry, photography, dancing, singing…
• control – learn to control what you can within your own bubble, and leave what you can’t
• media – limit exposure to the news, near bedtime
Adapted from The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk