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How a Traumatized Nation Can Cope

Illustration of three people with COVID symbols over their heads.

We are living through two epidemics—an unprecedented deadly virus, and the pandemic of racism that has reached a tipping point. Dr. Renee Lertzman answers your questions on how to process, and then soldier on.

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The last few months have been an emotional rollercoaster. As a pandemic raced its way around the world and humanity shuttered itself indoors, life as we knew it essentially ground to a halt. In the midst of all that, as Black Americans were lost to COVID-19 in disproportionate numbers, police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks spurred country-wide protests where we witnessed law enforcement unleash violent retribution in response to calls for their accountability. Americans are — collectively and in one way or another —  traumatized. And we’re responding to that emotional trauma in a lot of ways. Insomnia, anger, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, mood swings, sadness, numbness. We are all so tired.

DAME wanted to better understand the psychology of what’s happening to all of our minds right now so we decided to turn to an expert on large-scale trauma on a world-wide scale. We asked our readers to submit their questions about how they are feeling these days and turned to Dr. Renee Lertzman, a psychologist and strategist who specializes in our emotional response to climate change, to help us answer them.

Our readers asked us several questions about their emotional states right now: 

“Is insomnia part of COVID brain or just a manifestation of anxiety?”

“My anger is out of control.”

“I cannot concentrate. Focusing on anything for an extended period of time takes incredible effort these days.”

“I feel paralyzed by helplessness amid a health pandemic with no end in sight, and the pandemic of racism that has stolen so much from so many.”

“I have never been diagnosed with a mental illness but I am feeling what I can only describe as manic-depressive. I will have wild bouts of energy, productivity, and excitement, and then entire days of feeling absolutely defeated and hopeless, I can’t stop crying, and I’m so exhausted, it hurts.”

All of these questions seem related — do you think they’re all a reaction to the same emotional state?

I think it’s extremely important that we have perspective on what’s happening through the lens of an individual and collective traumatic experience. It’s not really about either-or. We’re part of a collective, we’re going through a collective experience, and individually we’re experiencing that in our own particular ways. There’s no big leveling message.

When we look at it through the lens of trauma it helps us make sense of our experience. One of the first things that we want to do is to acknowledge and normalize our experience and our feelings. To just name what’s going on — which these questions are doing. It starts with actually relating to ourselves from a place of total compassion. Really directing whatever empathy we have access to towards ourselves first. We need to actually show up for ourselves and accompany ourselves. This idea is inspired by the work of a trauma therapist named Sarah Peyton who does a lot on trauma and self-regulation. Our ability to regulate our nervous system, our brains’ neural response to stress and trauma.

Can you explain what self-regulation is and share some examples of what it would look like?

Self-regulation is a very common term that’s used in neuroscience and in attachment and trauma work.

So we start with really turning towards ourselves with as much warmth and empathy and compassion as we can. It’s a practice of being able to witness yourself. You’re not just fully flooded with your emotional response but you’re [able to] access some part of you where you can watch. Any kind of mindfulness practice where you bring awareness to breath or body sensation or sounds around you or what you see. Anything that brings your awareness into focus allows us to step outside of our immediate visceral state.

I think that these are tools that we can all be cultivating and developing and need to be practicing. ‘We have to start by putting the oxygen mask on ourselves. And the most powerful way I know [to do this] is by really being attentive to what your self-talk is. For example: “What’s wrong with me? I shouldn’t be feeling this. I’m not doing well. I should be handling this better.” So we have to start with that kind of oxygen mask, it’s like holding your own hand and saying: “It’s ok. You make sense.” And doing some self-soothing.

So once we start to be kind to ourselves and forgive ourselves for our emotional state, how do we move forward?

The next really important piece is stabilizing ourselves with the bigger context. Really putting things in perspective that this is an event that is in fact legitimately destabilizing. It is stretching all of us in ways we haven’t anticipated and it’s important to have that context to make sense of what we’re experiencing and why. This is in fact, my brain is struggling to process what’s going on because it’s on a level that’s so beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before, so I’m struggling to even know how to be. Of course, I’m feeling this way, These are global events that are having all kinds of unexpected and traumatic impacts. How we live with that level of uncertainty is huge. Everyone is outside of their levels of tolerance right now.

Another one of our readers mentioned they were having a slightly different response. They said, “I worry that my empathy is slipping. The news and social media are so inundated with injustice, negativity, and fear that I’m becoming numb to it all. Is this my brain’s way of protecting me?”

I think it is incredibly important to recognize that we all have our threshold for what we’re capable of taking in and engaging with. This is your brain’s way of protecting you. It’s not that you’re an uncaring person or that there’s something wrong with you. We tune out and numb ourselves in order to protect ourselves. So we have to work with our denial, our despair, and our willful ignorance. [These are emotional] strategies that come up when we’re faced with overwhelming circumstances. In noticing these things we’re not as controlled by them. We say: “This is what’s happening, I’m finding it hard to even feel anymore,” and then we have to say: “Yeah, it’s because I’m overwhelmed. What can I do to take care of myself right now?”

So what can we do? What does self-care look like with trauma at this scale?

The fourth piece is finding support. And really connecting with others. Finding your mentors, allies, guides, and teachers. People with whom you can really be yourself. Where no one will say, “you’re bumming me out.” You want to connect with people who can accept you and handle your feelings no matter what you’re feeling. A counselor, a therapist, a spiritual teacher, an old friend. People who are safe for you to connect with. We need to really not feel alone.

It’s very easy to feel alone. I would encourage people to do what they can. And be thoughtful about how much media they take in. We get really addicted. It’s our brain’s way to stay safe and know what’s going on and feel like we’re in control. But is it really helping you? Is it making you feel better? More resilient? It’s not. Impose a mindful way of engaging with the media and take media diets. Make sure that we disconnect and we turn our attention to our own wellbeing and stay connected to activities that feed us. Make sure you’re resourcing yourself like a plant. Watering and feeding yourself and engaging in activities that really do give you energy. And that’s not just numbing out in front of Netflix — that’s fine but it’s not energizing. It’s disconnecting but what’s energizing? Having a good conversation or cooking or making something for someone or reading a book or planting something or learning a new skill.

What about responding to our feelings of guilt that we might not be doing enough to help others right now?

How is that helping anyone? Is it helping people who are suffering right now? It’s absolutely doing nothing. It’s ok, it’s normal to be aware of the suffering of others. Many of us have a low-grade survivor guilt right now. Who am I to be OK when people are out of work or suffering? So many people aren’t safe, they’re vulnerable and who am I? You can feel the suffering and you can do what you can to help people, that’s more effective. Can I donate or volunteer? Feeling guilt is counterproductive. That’s under category one — making friends with your feelings including guilt.

A lot of folks have mentioned feeling a loss of a sense of time these days, especially as we are all stuck at home and have lost our normal routines. One reader asked, “Time itself feels off. Everyone keeps joking that days and hours don’t exist anymore, but I’m finding myself legitimately confused about what day or hour it is.”

That person needs to create more rituals in their day so it’s less of a blur. You’ve gotta have some agency here. We don’t leave the house and we don’t have ways to interrupt the days, but what can you do to enforce having rituals? You’ve gotta create it for yourself.

One of our readers was wondering if their own personal history could be shielding them from having the same emotional response other people are having right now: “Could significant prior trauma (and subsequent PTSD) actually be protective in experience of “COVID brain” due to already established neural conditioning (trauma response)?

I think the answer is yes. People who have prior trauma and PTSD are more accustomed to and familiar with trauma response. That’s probably why I’m doing OK, frankly. I have not been freaked out and I’ve been very curious why. I think it’s because I’ve already been very familiar and have had experience with trauma and anxiety. I’ve been working on climate change and environmental crisis since 1987. I’ve already been thinking about this stuff and feeling it for so many years. It doesn’t make it less painful. I’m having a hard time. But other people describe feeling totally derailed. I went through that in the late 80s, I lived with insomnia and constant anxiety for years as I learned about the reality of climate change.

Insomnia and difficulty sleeping seems to be one of the most common reactions to all this. In fact, one reader mentioned that even when they do sleep, it’s not enough: “I’ve been waking up lately feeling completely exhausted, even after a full night’s sleep, and with symptoms that almost feel like a hangover. And I don’t drink.”

What’s really important to recognize with waking up exhausted is to recognize this is an incredibly exhausting time in ways we don’t even fully understand because it’s not tangible. You’re not physically doing something but cognitively and emotionally we are absolutely engaged in ways that aren’t normal. It is taking up a lot of our energy and it’s really important that we take extra good care of ourselves. How are you feeling when you go to bed? What’s your state when you go to bed? My guess is you’re going to bed super stressed so you’re going to wake up stressed. Prepare yourself for rest. Meditate, listen to music, take a bath, turn out the light, no screen — whatever you have to do to calm your system down. We have to really adopt practices that are appropriate for the kind of circumstances we’re living and if we soldier on and we pretend we don’t have to, we’re going to burn out. The most meaningful thing anyone can do right now is to take good care of themselves. And it’s really important for people to get emotional and professional help right now [if they can]. Resource yourself.

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