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Wait, Are We Back Here Again?

Coping with the pain of yet another COVID-19 wave.

Key points

  • Many aspects of the past several weeks are reminiscent of those of early 2020.
  • Reminders of stressful earlier experiences can trigger trauma-related reactions.
  • It may be beneficial to remind ourselves that much is different, and that there are ways to stay grounded.

Are we really back here again? Rising case counts, hospitals filling to capacity, schools continuing their precarious march into the new year. It seems like the intervening months have done little to shift the landscape, and we are reliving the pain of early 2020.

When Painful Memories Return

In those with a history of trauma, re-experiencing the moments around the event can be tortuous. Flashbacks of imagery, smells, or sensations re-create a memory that feels very real, and very much in the present.

Understandably, our body’s machinery, designed over eons, responds to this perceived threat as if it’s happening in real time. The ubiquitous presence of “trigger warnings” doesn’t accurately express what can occur with reminders of traumatic events. The terror returns, along with increases in heart rate, shallow, rapid breaths, shaking hands, and blurred vision. This is not the fleeting disruption of a disturbing thought, but rather a physiological earthquake demanding our attention and, ideally, safe escape.

If you have ever been told to “calm down” when you are feeling highly anxious or fearful, you recognize the difficulty in forcefully suppressing our hyperalert warning system. Not only does this feel invalidating, but the belief that you need to control this feeling, push it down and carry on, can sustain the distress.

How Can We Begin to Cope With These Experiences?

During psychotherapy, I help patients learn how to ground themselves in their current experiences and notice what they are sensing in the room. As described by Bessel van der Kolk in his excellent book, The Body Keeps the Score, “In order to change you need to open yourself to your inner experience. The first step is to allow your mind to focus on your sensations and notice how, in contrast to the timeless, ever-present experience of trauma, physical sensations are transient and respond to slight shifts in body position, changes in breathing, and shifts in thinking.”

In other words, what you may be feeling in the moment can be named, tolerated, and allowed to pass through. It will not last forever.

Some grounding exercises we work on resemble key components of mindfulness: how can we bring our awareness to the present moment? We work on focusing attention on our breath, our feet firmly planted on the floor, our hands with fingertips lightly touching.

This Pandemic Is an Ongoing Traumatic Experience

Though the trauma of the past several years may not involve a singular, horrific event, we can notice in ourselves reactions to an unexpected lack of safety, security, or certainty. For example, when I pause to listen inwardly, I hear a weary, frustrated voice, asking for clarity. As I did in early 2020, I’m flipping rapidly through various news sites and information resources, searching for something that just doesn’t exist: an accurate prediction of what the future holds.

When I finally lift my head from the vortex of social media, I try to avoid self-criticism, but rather recognize the understandable pull toward numb avoidance. I remind myself that yes, of course, I’m painfully reminded of the early days of the pandemic, stomach clenching with each new email from the school district or sniffle heard in my home. But I also try to review all of the ways things are different:

  1. My family is vaccinated.
  2. This current variant appears (fingers crossed) to be less deadly.
  3. Thanks to our unbelievable scientists, new treatments are emerging regularly.
  4. I don’t look forward to homeschooling while working, but I know I will be able to continue caring for others, both related to me and those seeking my professional help.

Early in the pandemic, my young son asked me to help him remember what has stayed the same, despite all of the upheaval and loss. The Post-It note we created together remains on our fridge, enduring next to the fluctuating seasonal artwork and schedule reminders. Here is what we read each day:

We are a family and we love each other. We have a safe place to sleep at night and lots of good food to eat. We are all healthy. We have a lot of family who we love and love us. You are special and kind.

If it helps, consider your own list of the enduring blessings in your life. Yes, much of our current situation reminds us of the beginning of this years-long pandemic, but in many ways we are better off now. We will get through this, changed but resilient, enduring the uncertainty together.

References

Van der Kolk, Bessel A. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking. 2014 ISBN 0670785938

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