Have You Checked on Your Nervous System Lately?

Taking a trauma-informed look at the last year's events can help us heal.

Posted Jan 20, 2021

I know, without knowing you, that you don’t need to read another post recapitulating the devastation that was 2020—the year that brought us all to our knees. You’ve, no doubt, read enough about the unprecedented, unilaterally destructive nature of this pandemic and the catastrophically divided state of affairs in America. In fact, I’m sure it feels like that’s all you read and hear about these days—maybe it’s all you think about, too.

The reality is that what’s taken place over the last 10 months has been nothing short of a collective trauma. Our stability and security have been disrupted. Our sense of physical safety has been threatened. Our sense of reality has been reoriented. And any ideas we might have had about what the future holds have been thrown into utter uncertainty. Add to this the fact that we’ve been frozen in place, stuck in our homes, and restricted in our ability to seek comfort in the normal routines and surroundings we could once rely on as a source of soothing.

We may not need another reminder of how bad 2020 was; but perhaps we do need a reminder of what this means for our ability to feel, and be, okay.

While we’ve all been facing different difficulties over the last year, there’s a common thread in this experience that unifies us all. In spite of how we might be individually affected by the pandemic and political turmoil, we all have a nervous system that’s been responding to these circumstances in a primitive, rather rudimentary way.

A primary job of the nervous system is to scan the environment for safety and—based on its determination of whether all is well or danger is imminent—prepare the body to react accordingly. Lately, the environment we’re living in has been signaling threat at many levels. The real and present danger of a deadly virus is just one of many such signals.

No nervous system has been spared the activating effects of our status quo being so severely disrupted. And to add insult to injury, at the same time that our nervous systems have been triggered—generating the well-known fight or flight response so often spoken about—we’ve been pinned in place and rendered relatively powerless by the restrictions this pandemic has imposed.

For the last several months, we’ve all been, to some extent, triggered and, to a large extent, trapped. We’ve been forced to face the limits of what we’re able to control, and we’ve been stripped of many resources we once relied upon to soothe ourselves and bolster our resilience—resources that include social connection, which is vital to our ability to reestablish emotional and physiological regulation after a threat to our security or survival. It’s no wonder rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide have been skyrocketing.

But it isn’t all bad news. By recognizing what’s happening with our nervous systems, we can intentionally direct our efforts toward soothing and stabilizing ourselves. We can start doing things like:

  • Limiting our exposure to news and social media, which can have a retraumatizing impact
  • Understanding the changes in our energy levels and stress tolerance, and setting boundaries accordingly
  • Nurturing our bodies with what they need: adequate sleep, movement, hydration, and nutritive foods
  • Trying out new, nervous-system-soothing activities, like meditation, yoga, Qigong, breathwork, nature walking, Tai Chi, tapping, or journaling
  • Getting support from a therapist
  • Acknowledging our needs and making self-care a top priority 

This year hasn't been gentle on us, but we must remember to be gentle with ourselves. Our nervous systems are depending on it.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory