“When the pandemic started, I was in total panic. I was scared but I just focused on what I had to do. Now I don’t know how I feel and all I can think is … ‘Now what’.”
This was a statement from a client I saw in my psychotherapy practice mid-last week. We processed these emotions and after the session ended I did not think much more of it. But as I moved through sessions this week, I continued to hear the same sentiment come up over and over again. People reported a sudden rush of emotions including sadness, loss, confusion, and overwhelming fear. Not only was I hearing it from my clients, who have no connection to one another, I was seeing it show up our social media pages, hearing it from my friends, and even experiencing it myself. After watching the 2011 movie Contagion with Matt Damon and Laurence Fishburne, I found myself emotionally overtaken, crying, and talking to my partner about fears about the pandemic I didn’t even know I had!
Welcome to Collective Trauma Recovery. Trauma recovery has 3 stages – and we are all about to enter into Stage Two.
Trauma is a psychological response to a distressing event which overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. In a 2002 article, Psychiatrist Judith L. Herman highlighted that the road to trauma recovery can be divided up into 3 stages:
Stage 1 – Safety & Stabilization. In this stage, an individual is focused on establishing or re-establishing a sense of safety and stability. Predominantly driven by the limbic fight or flight response, his or her focus is on immediate actions that can be taken to increase the sense of security and decrease risk of harm and vulnerability.
Stage 2 – Remembrance and Mourning. In this stage of trauma recovery, the individual begins to face the ways in which they have been impacted by the traumatic event. Marked by a development in awareness, he/she begins to acknowledge and grieve the losses brought on by the traumatic event and starts to feel the emotional impact more acutely. This stage can be marked with an oscillation between a mix of emotions and numbness as the individual moves further into rebuilding the story around the painful event.
Stage 3 – Reconnection & Integration. In this stage, the individual begins to assemble a new vision of their lives and themselves in relation to the event. The traumatic event can remain a part of his or her world but is no longer the focal point or the centre of their personal experience. In this stage, emotional responses become better understood and more effectively managed. The ability to create one’s own reality becomes paramount and creates a foundation of hope for the future.
In mid-March, we were thrust into chaos as we tried to understand and respond to the threat COVID-19 proposed to our lives, our livelihood, our families, our economy, and our world. We were not prepared and collectively, we all went into fight or flight – Trauma Stage 1. Our brains drove us to seek as much certainty and stability as we could. We made a dash for food and essentials, reached out to support family members, and did what we could to protect our financial and other resources. While not all of the activities made sense from the outside looking in (eg. mass consumption of toilet paper), all of it was driven with one question in mind, “What do I need and how do I get it?”.
Fast forward 3 weeks. The grocery stores are stocked (for the most part). We are now 3 weeks into being home most of the time and social distancing has become a regular part of our day. Things are not “settled” by any means, but we have become familiar enough with the pandemic response measures that our brains are not in the constant state of red alert they were in the beginning. We are on the downhill of the anxiety curve – Trauma Recovery, Stage Two.
In the absence of the flight or flight we felt in Stage 1, there is more opportunity for our emotions to come to the surface. We may feel sadness at the death and tragedy the virus has caused, fear for our health and the health of our families, feelings of helplessness and desperation as we try to minimize the impact of a halted economy, or an indiscriminate anger at everything and everyone. Some of what we feel we may not even have a label for.
Whatever we are experiencing, moving through this stage of grief is going to require an individual and a collective re-group. We will need to give ourselves some breathing room and take time to re-evaluate where we are and what we need to rebuild the psychological capacity drained away over the past few weeks. A few thoughtful questions might be:
- What do I really feel about all of this?
- How am I doing physically? Mentally?
- How has the pandemic changed things for me and my family?
- What am I worried about most? How can I respond to this worry in a way that helps alleviate my fear (even if only partially)?
- What resources to I have to draw upon to help me at this time? What additional resources can I access?
- What is my priority for the next 2 weeks and what steps must I take to see this priority through?
- How can I take care of myself as we move forward?
While these questions by no means make up a comprehensive list, they do provide a jump off point for self exploration.
As we develop our awareness of the impact of COVID-19, we must make time to tend to our psychological wounds and replenish our overall capacity (the sum of our physical and mental energy). We can do this by attending first to the basics – sufficient rest, nutrition, and exercise—and then prioritizing meaningful connections and engagement even if it means a temporary pause on productivity. We will need opportunities to safely explore our inner vulnerabilities so we may, by the same token, reconnect with our inner strengths, the things that enable and empower us. This may mean reaching out and being willing to open up to others despite how scary it feels. I have encouraged many of my clients to journal and share their perspectives with a trusted friend, family member, or partner. Start a blog or a diary of your own. Join a support group or online community such as Coping with COVID: A Family Support Group. Sharing our stories and listening to the stories of others can help keep us connected by reaffirming that we have all been affected by the pandemic and are all doing our best to cope.
There will be days we are overwhelmed – we can focus on smaller wins and rest. There will be days we feel like we have it all together – we can share our energy and help someone else. There will be days we have no idea what is going on – we practice mindfulness to gain some clarity. These experiences are all elements of our collective recovery and as we tend to our psychological needs, we will become stronger and more resilient.
Acknowledged or not, the COVID-19 Pandemic has placed an incredible strain on our psychological resources and activated our most primal of instincts (Survival). The long term consequences for mental health will be directly correlated to how well we take care of ourselves and each other as time moves forward. So, as we move from collective panic, through collective confusion, to collective calmness, let’s make time to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing. Starting today!