In the series “Light After Loss,” Modern Loss’s Rebecca Soffer discusses ways to navigate the long arc of grief and loss.
There’s no doubt that 2020 and much of 2021 have been some of the toughest and scariest times that many of us have endured. In the United States alone, one out of every 600 people has died from COVID-19. And while it feels like life is starting to open up again, we cannot erase the trauma we lived through.
The good news: We are naturally designed to withstand adversity, to grow from it and survive. More than 50 percent of people will experience a traumatic event in their lifetime — and when we fold in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s safe to say we’ve all dealt with a certain level of trauma now, be it grieving someone who died, caring for a sick person or ourselves, being care-giving children, working overtime, or losing work.
The majority of people who live through trauma manage to deal with that trauma on their own, and that really speaks to the resilience of humans. But it can be helpful to understand how traumatic stress impacts the mind and body, and how you can mitigate its common reactions with some helpful coping mechanisms.
In a recent “Light After Loss” Instagram Live episode, Modern Loss’ Rebecca Soffer and trauma psychologist Pria Alpern, Ph.D., talked about this topic. Here are some key takeaways:
What happens to our bodies when we perceive a threat?
The fight-or-flight response gets activated in our mind and nervous system, leading to physiological arousal — the way many people were feeling a year ago: heightened levels of anxiety, shock, and intense fear.
How does it feel when we deal with a traumatic reality for a long period of time?
Research on trauma shows that within the first six months of a traumatic event it’s normal to feel really activated, but as time goes on, we can feel more constricted, depressed, on edge, or numb. This is a survival response; you can’t stay in such a heightened state of arousal for too long before you feel overrun by it and there’s no choice but to shut down.
The numbness many of us feel when staring at COVID-19 numbers is not because we don’t have empathy, it’s because such a painful number is difficult to absorb, and this is how we cope.
What are some of the common reactions to the particular stressors we’ve experienced during the pandemic?
When we are in a stressful situation where there are a lot of themes of loss and trauma, it’s normal for past grief to get kicked up. If people have a history of loss or illness in their family, or even a history of being sequestered and isolated — which is reminiscent of quarantine — that can trigger past feelings that feel very much alive in the present moment. This is a very common reaction. Heightened levels of anxiety, numbness, and exhaustion are also normal.
How can we manage feeling ungrounded during traumatic times?
To help yourself get through and tolerate this type of emotional distress, it’s important to learn how to bring yourself back to the present moment. This is called “grounding.” Acknowledge to yourself that you don’t know what will happen in the future, but you are here right now. Press your feet into the floor, feel its support, and notice the foundation beneath you. Repeat to yourself, “I’m here right now. I’m in my body. I can feel my breath.”
We can get so caught up trying to manage our anxiety and stress that our attention becomes dysregulated. For example, if someone you know is sick, you might get stuck worrying about how she will be in the future. Or, if you’re experiencing a resurgence of grief reactions triggered by a particular event, you might be stuck in turning the past over again and again. The effect is the same in both scenarios: You are no longer in the here and now.
How do we practice “self-care” during trauma?
Self-care is a trending buzzword, but it doesn’t necessarily mean practicing yoga and drinking green juice. It can mean going to the grocery store without your kids or eating a cheeseburger instead of a carrot.
Self-care is really about having self-respect and self-reverence. Ask yourself, “What makes me feel good inside?” and “What can I do for myself that doesn’t depend on how other people perceive me?”
Remember, self-care isn’t performative: It really needs to feel good to YOU. If what works for someone else doesn’t work well for you, don’t do it.
This article was written by ModernLoss.com, which offers candid conversation about grief and meaningful community throughout the long arc of loss.