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The Mental Health Toll of Surviving a Pandemic

Some of the potential effects on the body and on the mind during this pandemic and a few tools that might be helpful.

I feel angst. I feel frustrated. I feel angry. I feel uncertain. I feel unsure. I feel like I’m lacking direction. I feel like everything is at a standstill. I feel annoyed. I feel like I’m trapped. I feel anxious. I feel fearful. I feel impending doom. I feel like I’m doing nothing. I feel exhausted. I feel drained. I feel emotional. I feel sad. I feel grief. I feel confused. I miss friends. Even as an introvert, I miss people. I want things to go back to normal but will that normal even exist after all of this? Is this the new normal? How long will this last? Will it ever end? How long can my kids stay cooped up like this? How long can I stay cooped up like this? How will this affect me long term? Will the world ever be the same? Is this really happening? The roller coaster of feelings and emotions during this time is extensive and ever present and real. It’s hard to shake. Hard to distract from and hard to grasp these new realities sometimes. The uncertainty of it all is unnerving and trying to hold space for it all is exhausting. Even with the strongest faith and the most steadfast hope this time still materializes new and very real mixtures of emotions and sensations in our minds and in our bodies. Even the most adept practitioners of emotional and body regulation are searching for ways to regulate and make sense of this unique mixture of circumstances. What you are feeling is real, tangible, and valid. What is happening in the world right now is unprecedented, abnormal, and unknown. We are all treading through these new waters together. We and the world as a collective at this moment are experiencing something traumatic. This pandemic may be registering as trauma for the first time in your mind and in your body or it may be triggering other traumas that were already present for you. When we talk about trauma we are talking about complex and overlapping intersectional systems and experiences that are not only unique but also shared. A common thread throughout trauma whether interpersonal, community, or systemic is the dynamic of power. Trauma happens when power is taken away from a person or group and then used to violate, coerce, or limit that person or groups access or choice. Power by definition is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events in a situation. In trauma power is used for bad, for hurting, for isolating, for coercion, and for limiting other beings. In response to power being taken away, on top of surviving the blunt vibrations of trauma, it also leaves us feeling helpless and isolated. We hold these memories of trauma and these feelings of hopelessness and isolation not only in our minds but also in our bodies. Many might be familiar with what triggers are and how folks can be triggered by a myriad of external stimuli, good or bad. Triggers can happen when something externally (outside of our body) stirs up internal memories and body sensations. We also have internal triggers. This is when Internal states of being and internal sensations cause memories and sensations to come flooding back to us. This happens not only in our minds but internal triggers also manifest in our bodies. They are usually subtle and felt experiences. Internal triggers are caused by shifts in our environment or the states of our bodies. For example, if you are someone who experienced abandonment and if you think about that you may be able to feel what that abandonment felt like in your body. Now let's say you are in a relationship later on in life and you feel like your partner is distancing themselves from you or even they might need to leave you for a period of time. That shift in your environment and body could trigger the past abandonment that you once felt. Even if the current situation is good and the distancing or needing to leave isn’t to abandon you, the rush of anxiety or sadness of your past situation comes back to you in your current situation. So you are in a new current situation but are in a reservoir of past memories and body sensations that you might not be able to sort through. Let’s look at our present reality, we as a collective human race are currently experiencing a shift in the power dynamics of our world. We are in a situation where our lives and choices are restricted and limited. All, but some more than others, are having access to resources either controlled or denied. Our power to protect those we love has shifted as this virus comes on suddenly and unexpectedly. Thinking about your own reality, you might be able to notice ways in which you feel that your power is being taken away or shifted away from you right now. The shifting that is happening at the moment is an attempt to protect and curb the full effects of this virus, which is a good thing. However, it could very well be causing a trauma response in you. Also, if you are someone who has experienced the oppressive usurping of power shifting away from you in the past, this present feeling of your power being taken away could be triggering a greater internal response for you. Memories and feelings that bring you back to times in your life when your power was taken away may be very real for you right now. You might be on high alert or really anxious. You might feel angry or just really sad. You might feel nothing. You might be feeling everything. All of the ways that this might be manifesting for you right now are real and valid. Judith Herman wrote in her book, Trauma and Recovery, “helplessness and isolation are core experiences of trauma and empowerment and re-connection are the core experiences of recovery.” So if we apply this principle that empowerment and re-connection are one way in which we might begin to shift from the feelings of helplessness and isolation what are some ways in which you can begin to potentially practice this? In your own life, what are some ways that you might begin to feel empowered and reconnected during this time? Here are some things that I’ve been trying:

Recognize: Recognize this shift of power that is happening in the world and in my life. Recognize how this may or may not be showing up in my body and in my mind. Recognize that although much is out of my control at the moment there are still aspects that I can regulate. Allow: Allowing space for feeling or not feeling. Instead of trying to busy or distract myself, allowing moments for naming and validating what I am feeling. Whether it is talking to someone, writing, creatively expressing, sitting down in contemplation, or just saying it out loud - allowing space for honestly in what is showing up for me at any given moment has been helpful.

Center: Finding ways in which to recenter myself on the things that I do have power over. Also, centering my days doing things that help me to feel empowered and reconnected. I feel empowered and centered when I practice yoga ,meditate, or practice breathing exercises. Maybe you feel empowered when you paint or write or sing or maybe when you ride your bike, or hike, or maybe when you play basketball. Maybe, find activities that help you to feel empowered, centered, and try to build those things into your day.

Reconnect: We need each other. We need community. Get creative in finding ways to connect with others. Maybe you set up a regular time each week where you Facetime a friend and drink coffee together. Maybe you join an online class (there are so many right now from workout classes to online happy hours) but try to find ways that help you feel connected with the larger community around you. I hope that these words bring light into what you might be experiencing. I hope as we tread through these new waters together that we learn to value the simple things in life. I hope that we grow in patience and in love and in compassion. And I hope that in our longing and in our missing of the things of old that we don’t miss out on the new that is blooming right in front of us.


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