While everyone struggles right now, you hurt in different ways. Congratulations, you’re a trauma survivor living through a time of global trauma. Feels pretty terrible right?
You may have already lived through this once, if you’re old enough to really remember 9/11. Fear gripped the nation, emotions ran high, and everyone looked for answers and someone to blame.
And here we are again – globally. In some ways, this virus feels much scarier than 9/11. Living in the Midwest, terrorism feels like a pretty distant threat. Indianapolis wasn’t really a likely terrorist target. You probably didn’t personally know people who were in Manhattan that day.
Dealing with a global trauma again
This time, the threat is everywhere and the timeline for when it will pass seems endless. The “soldiers” on the front line are the healthcare workers, truck drivers, grocery store staff, and Amazon deliverers. You likely know someone who’s been infected by COVID-19. You certainly know someone who is at higher risk due to age or an underlying medical condition.
Social distancing cuts you off from your regular routine and resources for taking care of yourself. While staying at home is the most patriotic and responsible choice, social isolation feels terrible and adds to the pervasive sense of unease. Perhaps your immediate sense of safety is undermined by a loss of income as well. Feeling entirely freaked out makes all the sense in the world. You hurt in different ways than those around you.
Some of those feelings may seem familiar to you. That familiarity makes it easier to deal with in some ways. You live with a pit in your stomach every day, this is your normal. Or the familiarity may make it harder to deal – as in, you know this feeling and the external intensity of it brings you down and overwhelms your ability to cope. Maybe this heightened atmosphere leaves you encountering your emotional pain for the first time.
Knowing you, you’ve probably read all the advice for coping with COVID-19 related anxiety out there, trying to understand the different ways you hurt. Here are some specific things to be aware of and look out for in your life as a trauma survivor:
Different Ways You Hurt and Cope, as a Trauma Survivor:
You hurt differently by going numb:
You may find yourself feeling “calm.” Not in the sense of feeling serene and at ease, but in the sense of feeling nothing. As a trauma survivor, you’ve gotten really good at evading intense and uncomfortable feelings. It helped you survive. However, going numb limits your ability to feel alive, creative, at ease and connected with others.
Numbness can also be part of dissociation. Dissociation, a common response to overwhelming stuff, ranges from daydreaming to full on split personalities. In between these two extremes lie other unpleasant states of mind. These states contribute to the different ways you hurt. You may notice that you feel detached within yourself, as if you’re observing your own internal reality from a distance or as if the world around you is fake, which is called depersonalization. While feeling detached in this way can make the unbearable okay (and everyone experiences it at some point), long-term depersonalization hurts your brain.
Numbness, dissociation, and depersonalization contribute to other uncomfortable states, like feeling zero interest in doing anything else. If nothing is real, then it’s hard to feel motivated right? You may find things that usually bring you pleasure, don’t. When you go numb, you lose access to the good feelings along with the bad.
When you feel detached from yourself and as if everything is fake, then your sense of isolation will heighten. When you can’t connect to yourself, it’s hard to feel connected to anyone else either. In addition to social distancing, you may find yourself easily believing that you alone are a uniquely broken freak and no one will ever love or understand you.
Another different source of pain – over-functioning:
Instead of or in addition to feeling numb, you may find yourself permanently on high alert. This reaction to overwhelming experiences, called hyper-vigilance, comes from your amygdala, the ancient, instinctive part of your brain that is designed to notice threats and keep you safe. Unfortunately, experiencing trauma makes your amygdala extra sensitive and leaves it constantly monitoring the world around you for threats.
Feeling constantly on edge may lead you to working overtime to make sure everything around you is okay. You may be incredibly disciplined and high achieving, the person in your circle everyone relies on, which feels awesome. Yet if that achievement is driven by a hijacked amygdala that believes your survival depends on it, you will experience distress instead of accomplishment. And it’s highly likely you will crash and burn when you run into your very human limitations.
In the process of trying to feel safe, you may also feel tempted to exert control over the world around you. In some ways, this impulse will enable you to stay organized, plan ahead, etc. However, this impulse can lead you to attempt to control other people around you, demanding they change their behavior in order for you to feel safe. This strategy leaves you vulnerable to mistreating those you love, especially since you’re all forced under the same roof for weeks, maybe months at a time.
Hyper-vigilance contributes to a heightened sense of irritability. Because you’re aware of everything and your amygdala sees threats around every corner, your ability to respond to others in a relaxed and flexible way will be limited. You just don’t have bandwidth for additional stimulus. You hurt in different ways than others and that’s okay. Pay attention to your physiological reaction to someone walking into the room. If you startle easily and with some intensity, then it’s likely you’ve been hijacked and your amygdala is freaking out.
Avoidance leads to different types of hurt:
Avoiding your emotions and distress, another common coping strategy, works great in small doses. You definitely need to evade your freaked out feels to get some work done, cook dinner, help the kids with homework, etc. However, if you only avoid your freaked out feels, then your emotions stay stuck within you. Similar to going numb, avoiding your feels too frequently leads to loss of motivation and the ability to experience pleasure. You don’t get to choose which feels you avoid – it’s all or nothing.
Temporary withdrawal from your regular life demands and your uncomfortable feelings can be a great way to rest and care for yourself. You must make it temporary. Fully withdrawing often enough can become dissociation too. And even though you’re evading your feelings, you may find that you struggle to focus and think clearly. Avoiding things takes effort. And that effort may prevent you from feeling alert and energized.
Substance use amplifies the hurt you feel:
When you attempt to avoid suffering, you may turn to chemical means. Using drugs and alcohol allows you to cope and get a mental break from the normal internal state. The difficulty, especially when there are fewer appealing distractions around you, stems from the likelihood that how much you drink or use will increase. Disappearing into feel-good chemicals can easily become more attractive than dealing with life directly.
The trouble is, all drugs have side effects. And some of them can amplify the very thing you’re trying to avoid. For example, if drinking helps you escape your anxiety, that can feel great – except research shows that alcohol use increases anxiety once you’re sober again.
Perhaps you’re the kind of trauma survivor who struggles with internal awareness of yourself. Paying attention to what’s going on physically can shed light on what’s going on emotionally. Changes in your sleeping or eating habits are clear indicators that something is up. Taking care of your physical welfare can soothe your lizard brain, so do your best to rest even if you can’t sleep, and eat small meals even if you have no appetite.
COVID-19 is making all of us experience trauma on a global scale. But for those of us who are already personal trauma survivors, the effects can be extra intense. Paying close attention to these symptoms – numbness, over-functioning, hyper-vigilance, avoidance, and physical behavior changes – can help you recognize them as the warning signals they are and find other ways to navigate these difficult waters. Remember your self-care skills. Be gentle with yourself. And know that we are here to help. You can schedule a virtual session with us here.