We Can, And Should, Start Healing From Our Pandemic-Related Trauma

Photo: Getty/Solskin
This past year has been extremely difficult. Whether we realize it or not, most of us are moving through this pandemic in a constant state of anxiety and agitation—it’s difficult to focus, we’re not sleeping well, and our patience has all but disappeared. While some of us have experienced COVID-19 ourselves, others have cared for or lost family members, many have had to transition to working/learning from home, and the majority of us have definitely experienced a drastic lifestyle change. All of these situations are trauma-inducing.

Although there’s hopefully an end in sight, it doesn't mean that we should wait until it’s over to begin healing. In fact, if we begin developing good habits now, we’ll carry them into our lives once the pandemic ends, decreasing the long-term trauma we experience.

Experts In This Article
  • Emily Anhalt, PsyD, co-founder and chief clinical officer of Coa, an online mental health resource
  • James Gordon, MD, Harvard-trained psychiatrist and founder of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine

How do we know if we’re experiencing trauma?

It’s not always easy to recognize that you’re struggling. When you're in the middle of a traumatic experience, you might not even notice that you're anxious or short tempered. You’re simply trying to make it through the day.

“We have to start paying attention to what's actually going on with ourselves,” says James S. Gordon, MD, the founder and executive director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine and a world leader in addressing population-wide psychological trauma. “One of the deep problems in our society is that, too often, we treat ourselves as if we're machines. We just go through our days and make things happen, but we don't pay attention to either the physical or psychological signs, symptoms, or changes of any kind. The first thing we need to do is to spend some time in relaxed, moment-to-moment awareness so that we can actually become aware of what's going on.”

During your reflection, think about what you're doing differently now versus a few months ago as well as pre-pandemic. Have you stopped taking walks or going for bike rides? If so, think about why. Are you eating differently, watching more or less TV, staying in touch with friends? Consider your patterns and what your life looks like when you’re healthy.

“If you realize that it's not going super well right now, don't be hard on yourself,” says Emily Anhalt, PsyD, a psychologist, emotional fitness consultant, and the co-founder/chief clinical officer of Coa, a mental fitness community that recently opened an online studio. “I wouldn't expect anyone to actually be living their best life right now, so fold in some forgiveness and compassion for yourself while also figuring out how to move forward.”

What does trauma do to our bodies?

According to Gordon, our bodies have two responses to protect us from fear: “fight or flight” and “freeze.” While they're both designed to protect us from threats, they're meant to be turned on and off quickly. When they remain “on,” it’s either because we’re still experiencing the threat or because we continue to think about the threat, even after it's over.

“When our bodies stay in these reactive states that were originally meant to be protective, they become chronic conditions,” he explains. “The physiology of fight or flight is a fast heart rate, increased blood pressure, the tightening of big muscles, an increase in anxiety and fear, and a decrease in thoughtfulness, self-awareness, and compassion.”

The longer you remain in this state, the more vulnerable you become. A consistently high blood pressure or fast heart rate could lead to cardiovascular disease. The more cortisol circulating through your body, the more you’re vulnerable to infections. And if you're overwhelmed or depressed, you could emotionally withdraw from other people.

“When people are chronically traumatized and haven't dealt with it, they often become isolated,” says Gordon. “They emotionally shut down and can't closely connect with other people. Although our physiology initially changed to protect us, when the disruption goes on and on, it actually becomes disruptive to us.”

Let the healing begin

Once you’ve done some self-reflection it’s time to engage in self-inquiry. Ask yourself how you're doing and what you need.

“If you haven’t been on your bike for months, don’t push yourself to do it,” Anhalt advises. “Sometimes we need all of our resources just to exist. If you can't go out on that bike ride, that's okay. The idea is to mindfully decide that you’re not in the right place for it, and that instead you need to spend the time taking care of yourself.”

Then, create a self-care routine to slowly bring your mental and emotional health back into balance. Start with one or two changes, and as you begin to experience the benefits, add on. Gordon’s book Transforming Trauma walks readers through how to process and heal from trauma. He recommends beginning with soft belly breathing and then shaking and dancing. After just a few weeks of practicing these techniques several times a day, you’ll begin to feel more at ease throughout the day, sleep better at night, and improve your concentration. Plus, as these become a part of your life, you’ll automatically use them when needed.

“You’ll start using those techniques when you're agitated or really anxious,” says Gordon. “It becomes an antidote to the fight or flight and the stress responses. You’ll shed the toxic physiological patterns and replace them with healthy patterns that will promote your well-being and enhance your resilience.”

Additional changes to your routine can include anything from spending time in nature, relaxing with your pet, journaling, or cultivating a gratitude practice.

Feel all the feels

When we suppress our emotions, they take a toll on us psychologically and physically. For example, if we're constantly frustrated or angry and we don’t express it, then we become irritated and resentful. If we’re sad and can't cry or mourn, we can sink into a deeper state of depression.

Set aside time during the day where you're allowed to release your emotions, which can allow you to relax the rest of the day. It also helps you become more comfortable expressing your emotions as they come up. Both Gordon and Anhalt recommend experimenting with different methods and paying attention to how you feel before and after to discover what works best for you. Some ideas include:

  • Having a good cry, daily if needed
  • Shouting or pounding on pillows to let out anger and frustration
  • Scheduling a worry hour where you explore your anxieties
  • Journaling about your emotions and experiences

Connect with others

You are not alone. And even though we know everyone is experiencing this pandemic, our emotions often make us feel isolated. Connecting with others is critical to begin the healing process.

“Sometimes, very briefly reaching out can make a difference,” Gordon says. “The other day, when I was feeling overwhelmed, I reached out to a friend. I told her what was on my mind, and within two minutes my mood shifted. My mood changed just because I was confiding in someone. Creating groups of friends and communities of understanding is really crucial. In the long run, this type of healing will be most important.”

Anhalt believes that right now, everyone needs a little extra support. In addition to reaching out to friends, she also suggests exploring therapy.

“Therapy can mean lots of things—there's art therapy, trauma therapy, talk therapy, etc.," she explains. “What therapy really means is having a trained person who can help you move toward the version of yourself that you want to be. So if you have the time and money to make therapy possible, give it a try. There's something really powerful about building resilience over time.”

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