Since we have been in quarantine for several months now, it’s difficult to understand what our “normal” will look like as many states enter into phases of opening. As counties and states begin to open up, we may experience a duality of emotions. On the one hand, we may be excited that our favorite restaurants and beaches are opening up. On the other hand, we may also feel concerned about our safety and health with establishments opening up too soon. We may also notice the duality of increase and complacency in hypervigilant behaviors such as hand sanitizing, wearing masks and social distancing. Our humanity shows up with this duality of behaviors and emotions.
Our humanity is also showing up as we recognize and fight systemic racism in our world. We are stepping out and protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement and police reform in many cities and states. While we witness and engage in peaceful protesting, there are also instances where protests can get out of hand, and we ourselves experience the trauma of abuse of power, or we witness abuses of power in the news and on social media.
These collective experiences demonstrate that we are in an awakening as a nation and planet.
While awakenings can be positive, it’s important to note that many of us are still in survival mode. Trauma isn’t just experiencing a car accident or some other violent event. Living in this global uncertainty is a trauma in itself. Having an unprepared healthcare system with inadequate resources is a trauma. Remaining isolated, and not being able to touch or hug someone is a trauma, as this takes away our fundamental human need for connection. Whether we realize it or not, going through this collective trauma nationally and internationally does have a significant emotional impact on all of us.
Because of this, we may find our previous unresolved issues are coming back up to the forefront. We can also notice that previous unhealthy behaviors of coping with distress are showing up in our day to day, even when we thought we’d recovered from them. Someone who has been in recovery from alcoholism for years and years may find they are more tempted to have a drink. We may find we are changed, and prefer to work from home instead of out of our office. We may find our anxiety has quelled when we are in quarantine.
Notice there isn’t a right or wrong experience here. We must accept each experience as it arises.
And here is the hard truth regarding trauma recovery during this time. We cannot fully process the trauma that has occurred within us due to COVID-19 now, because we are all still experiencing it. Trauma processing can happen once we are safe and the trauma circumstances are no longer present. When the trauma continues to stare us in the face day by day, we maintain survival mode and do our best to get through every day. We’ve seen reports that there’s been an increase of mental health related symptoms since the outbreak of COVID-19 by a 30 percent increase according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) May 2019 report. This is where we collectively are. We are trying to survive. Right now we are not necessarily healing from the COVID-19 pandemic, we are coping while living in the pandemic.
The emotional toll this is having on all of us is tricky. Following an assault or following a natural disaster, emergency responders can come in and help survivors during the aftermath, when the immediate threat is over. At this time, a person’s fight or flight response has decreased, and they can work on recovery if they have the good fortune to do so. We, on the other hand, cannot work on decompressing and recovering from the trauma, if every day we are worried about bringing a dangerous virus home with us. And/or managing economic hardships from the fallout of the disease.
While we can do our best to cope and boost our morale, we are still going to have our bad days. When this medical crisis ends, it’s possible that a larger mental health crisis will emerge. To curtail that, I suggest the following:
1. Don’t wait to get help. Get help now.
Please do not wait for your life, your symptoms or your emotions to get so bad before you get help. While we may not be able to do full trauma recovery now, we can continue to work on prevention and coping strategies to support ourselves during this difficult time. We can do what’s called safety planning, emotional nurturing and grounding techniques to keep us mentally and emotionally safe.
To find a counselor who can help you with safety planning, you can go to www.psychologytoday.com to look for mental health professionals in your area or locate virtual counseling options. If you are in a true emergency, please call 9-1-1 or go to your nearest emergency room.
2. Focus on what you can control.
We may not be able to control what’s happening on a global scale, but we can control aspects on a smaller scale. We can engage in mindfulness skills. We can create our routine and schedule at home. We can do our best to eat healthy and engage in exercise to remain active.
3. Give back and volunteer.
Volunteering and giving back to marginalized and vulnerable communities helps boost our mental health. When we give back, we get out of our own thoughts, fears and concerns and focus on helping others. We can give back in different ways. Providing donations to organizations can feel and be positive. Sharing resources to communities in need is helpful. Being an ally to marginalized communities is also incredibly supportive. Try giving back and notice how you feel. You may find that you move forward with more purpose.
4. Develop a safety plan.
If you find that you’re very triggered during this time and it becomes emotionally unsafe for you to manage your feelings on your own, go to the nearest Emergency Room, call the National Suicide Hotline (1800-273-8255) and enter intensive therapy. Most therapists are offering virtual therapy, so you can chat from home or your office. If you plan to attend the protests, have a safety plan as well. Memorize emergency phone numbers in case you are detained by police. Have an exit strategy plan if things get out of hand. Stay close with your group and designate a meeting place post-protest that is away from large crowds.
5. Continue the activities you love.
We all have our outlets we enjoy pre and post-COVID. Listen to music, go out and be in nature, or read a joyful fiction novel. Our existence cannot be consumed strictly with the pandemic or with the protests. We need emotional breaks. Taking a break doesn’t mean you don’t care or aren’t proactive; it’s mainly for self-preservation during this difficult time.
To offer continued encouragement, and discussion on the reality of this difficult time, my desire is to encourage everyone to move through the day with more self compassion, kindness and understanding towards oneself. We are going through a global pandemic and civil rights unrest. If your mental health isn’t where it usually is, or where you want it to be, I absolutely do not fault you. I am speaking both as a mental health therapist and as a human being. There is help out there as well, and you don’t have to go through this alone. We, as therapists, want to help you. May you fill your cup with compassion, support and joy through this difficult time. It is completely possible.
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