The bodies of traumatized people portray “snapshots” of their unsuccessful attempts to defend themselves in the face of threat and injury. Trauma is a highly activated incomplete biological response to threat, frozen in time. For example, when we prepare to fight or to flee, muscles throughout our entire body are tensed in specific patterns of high energy readiness. When we are unable to complete the appropriate actions, we fail to discharge the tremendous energy generated by our survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in specific patterns of neuromuscular readiness. The person then stays in a state of acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction in the central nervous system. Traumatized people are not suffering from a disease in the normal sense of the word- they have become stuck in an aroused state. It is difficult if not impossible to function normally under these circumstances. ~Peter A. Levine
Unspeakable feelings need to find expression in words. However… verbalization of very intense feelings may be a difficult task. ~James A. Chu, Rebuilding Shattered Lives: Treating Complex PTSD and Dissociative Disorders
There is no one way to recover and heal from any trauma. Each survivor chooses their own path or stumbles across it. ~Laurie Matthew, Behind Enemy Lines
We are living in an unprecedented time. The current COVID-19 pandemic is having us “socially distance” from each other, while (in the US at least) schools, community centers, and libraries are closing their doors. We are being encouraged to stay at least six feet from other humans, to work from home, to “self-quarantine” while also receiving messages to go out and support local restaurants and other service based businesses, leaving us confused as to what is best for ourselves, our families, and our communities in general.
Add to this we have social media. And the internet. Which means access to information literally 24/7. This can be soothing to some and activating to others. The greater issue is the sometimes conflicting and misinformation.
This is all activating our survival response. This is all exacerbating our anxiety. This is all stressful and leaves us in a state of not being clear on what we should or shouldn’t be doing (other than washing our hands).
Our need for connection, for belonging, is also increased right now. Our bodies are wired to be in community and groups when crisis arises. So when we are unable to connect to our communities, fear around our own survival (subconsciously and consciously) sets in.
Part of our fear response is denial. Denial that things are “that bad.” Denial that this crisis will affect us. Denial that we need to worry about it at all.
As a whole we are on a spectrum between denial (fear suppression) and holy fuck we’re all gonna die (full on fear overwhelm).
I write all that, to try and help normalize what your personal response is. What is happening for you. How we can be vacillating between being completely annoyed by this all to being completely terrified. How we simply feel lost in it all, are trying so hard to figure out what our new normal looks like and to accept that we don’t know how long this new normal will be for.
This is all deeply stressful.
For those of us with complex trauma, for those of us who need routine and stability and predictability, this is beyond unsettling.
This means that our practices of soothing and calming our nervous system are vital. Whatever they may be.
It means taking time to breathe. To rest. To be present with our people now.
It means allowing all the complex and sometimes conflicting feelings (emotions and sensations) to come through. To not deny our experience. To acknowledge where we are in this moment. Where ever that may be.
It means having compassion for our Self, our loved ones, and our communities, as we navigate this “new normal” and figure out what does and doesn’t work for us, our families, and the greater collective.
It means knowing that we are going to get some things wrong. It means those we love are going to get some things wrong. It means those we trust and respect are going to get some things wrong.
It means we are all stumbling. Trying to figure out how to support ourselves, our families, our friends, our communities.
It means there are no absolutely right or absolutely wrong answers or ways of being right now.
It means we are living in liminal space.
Which, whoa, our activated nervous systems DO NOT LIKE.
I invite you to allow yourself to stop. To take a breath or a beat to allow yourself to not be in reaction mode. To stop and just allow yourself to be, just for a moment. To stop and not make a single decision, just for a moment.
Remember to care for yourself. Remember that we absolutely can NOT be of service to anyone if we are in a state of constant overwhelm and or burn out. Remember that our families, our communities, and our own bodies and minds, need us to be caring for our self.
Self care is NOT selfish. It is necessary for survival.
It is especially necessary during times of crisis. Like now.
There is no “under-reacting” or “over-reacting” right now. These are unprecedented times. We absolutely do not know what to expect in the long or even short run. Our fear response is both valid and understandable AND needs to be managed (not suppressed, managed).
Reminding ourselves as best we can to create that pause between stimulus and response is important right now. Sometimes we will be able to do it and other times not. And that is okay.
Reminding ourselves to have compassion for ourselves AND others is important right now. Sometimes we will be able to and other times not. And that is okay.
Reminding ourselves that all our complicated, complex, and contradictory feelings are valid is important right now. Sometimes we will be able to do this and other times not. And that is okay.
Giving ourselves permission to show up as fully human, that is what matters. To let go of shame and shaming as much as we can.
We are truly all in this together. AND we need to take care of ourselves as we take care of each other. Be gentle. Be loving. Be kind. Be compassionate. Towards others, and most especially to your Self.
In rebellious solidarity, always.
This essay was originally written for my weeklyish newsletter on March 15, 2020. It has been edited for publication here. To receive my recent essays, subscribe here.
If you are looking for resources and tools to help you regulate your system during this time, I invite you to explore our offering at Trauma & Co, Resourcing in Complex Times and or our Trauma & Co Community.