These are unprecedented times – being a part of a global pandemic that’s in our country and if you’re like me, in my hometown. For myself, I’m not sleeping well and when I do, I’m having vivid dreams around the themes of not getting help, not being able to help, or someone getting sick. It doesn’t take a dream interpreter to know there’s anxiety about covid-19. I’m not sure where this newsletter finds you. Maybe you too aren’t sleeping well. Maybe you’re in a place of grief as you’ve had to close your business or lay off workers who need immediate income. Maybe you’re anxious as you wait for a someone close to you to beat covid-19, wondering which statistic they’ll become – recovered or dead. Maybe you’re overwhelmed with the new hat of homeschool teacher with your children home while you also work from home. Maybe you’ve never felt more isolated because video connection isn’t replacing the real need for face-to-face contact and touch. Conversely, maybe you’ve found a deep calm that’s evaded you for years due to the lifestyle pace you’ve kept -either by choice or to avoid consequences (such as being fired, losing contracts, etc.). Maybe you’re attending online church after being disconnected from a faith community. Regardless of your situation, I hope this article helps you navigate your internal processes.
Many trauma experts suggest we are all in a collective trauma due to the global impact of covid-19. The experience of trauma will vary depending on how many people are sick around you. It felt very distant until a good friend got it and then my son’s classmate’s mom was hospitalized with it. Suddenly, the virus felt very invasive. My ability to manage my anxiety took effort. (Thankfully one recovered and the other, recovering.) Regardless of your current situation with covid-19, past traumas are most likely being triggered. In Bessel Van der Kolk’s book, “The Body Keeps Score,” he scientifically argues the body is the first organizer of our human experience and it remembers events that threaten our physical safety and mental health. What this means for covid-19, is that our past trauma responses, whether they be a shock trauma (i.e. life threatening, often called big “T” trauma) or pervasive, developmental trauma (called little “t” trauma), these types of traumas are going to show up in our bodies. In my past, I’ve experienced both little and big “t” traumas so it makes sense that my sleep cycle is impacted and even though I meditate daily and practice being grounded in order to be present – it’s not enough in this collective trauma. So it’s doubly important to realize when my proverbial mental driver’s seat is my negativity bias – the mechanism in my brain which focuses more importance to “threatening/negative” information than connecting/positive information. All of us are hard-wired with a negativity bias – it’s there to help us survive.
I want to name several negativity biases prevalent with covid-19. These come in the form of fears: fear of physical harm (getting sick) manifesting itself two ways – noticing every change in one’s body and/or feeling threatened when in the physical presence of someone even while socially distancing; fear of getting someone else sick; fear of the future (i.e. economy, death, occupation, etc.); fear of taking action (ex. going to grocery store), fear of not taking action (ex. not going to the store), fear of knowing (ex. not looking up information about covid-19), and fear of not knowing (ex. looking up covid-19 information). It’s easy to identify how anxiety spirals happen during covid-19 because doing one thing (getting food at the store to stay healthy) can provoke an opposing fear (getting infected).
Triggered trauma also makes us more susceptible to well-researched cognitive biases such as feeling more secure with recalled or previously seen information, even if it’s unimportant to this situation and actually mentally block a person from gathering new, important information. Another way of thinking about it, is a person operating intuitively rather than checking their intuition for accuracy. For example, this cognitive bias creates a calming effect when using your familiar household cleaner when anxiety is needed to investigate whether it’s effective against covid-19.
When trauma, negativity and cognitive biases can be driving our cognitive processes, it’s important to be grounded, connected and self-aware. Regarding health, it’s important to accurately appraise the physiological signals in our bodies and neither underestimate nor overestimate our susceptibility to infections. Such an appraisal needs cognitive open-mindedness that might only be found by “buying time” until our mind is calmer and able to notice the whole bodily picture. Buying time might be going for a walk while engaging all five senses, noticing the four corners of your feet while walking without your mind wandering, dancing, not taking your temperature every hour but instead require yourself to wait three hours because your heart races every temperature reading, meditation, or any distraction requiring a pause from your physiological assessment until you are fully present.
In terms of connection, two unhelpful dynamics can occur with trauma triggers. First, a survival/ self-sufficiency mode that makes it unable to see others around you as being capable of meeting your needs or containing your anxiety. In other words, you project onto others an overwhelm and anxiety making it impossible for them to meet your relational needs so you isolate and don’t ask. The second dynamic – you become everyone’s helper by projecting onto them that you need to meet their needs because no one else can do it. This is equally dangerous because it leaves you disconnected and alone in the paradoxical “alone together” dynamic.
We are created to need others. All of us. Interpersonal relationships are part of being human. Jesus modeled his need of others, especially in the Garden of Gethsemane when the disciples had fallen asleep while he prayed. He addressed them, “hey, I need you. Stop falling asleep” (my paraphrase). Listen to the story you’re telling yourself about needing connection during this time. Is trauma in the driver’s seat along with your negativity bias? How can you reach out for connection? How are you allowing others to bear your burdens through conversation? For me, weekly zoom calls with friends are my lifeline for navigating the very real stress present today.
Remember, hope and grounding are found in two things: 1) believing in a God who never leaves nor forsakes you even in the face of tragedy and loss, including death and 2) knowing you’re not alone because you have a life team as your relational safety net.
This post was first published for GrowthSkills, April 2020. Pictures were taken two years ago today on a photography workshop shoot with Stephen Matera in Southern Utah.